For much of the first half, Fresno State had New Mexico taking jump shots 3-pointers, which is what the Bulldogs wanted to do. The Lobos, they're just not good out there -- last of the 11 Mountain West Conference men's basketball teams and 249th of 354 in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage.
But the Lobos started to push the ball more inside in the second half, taking advantage of 7-foot center Alex Kirk and 6-9 forward Cameron Bairstow against the Bulldogs' thin frontline, which led to a couple of easy shots around the rim and a whole bunch of fouls and free throws.
New Mexico shot 38 free throws in the final 20 minutes in pushing past the Bulldogs 89-78 on Saturday at the Save Mart Center -- a number that requires some context.
The Lobos are second in the conference in free throws attempted, have made more than their opponents have taken, and the 38 they had in the second half is as many or more than they had in 14 of their first 16 games. They were second in the Mountain West and 13th in the nation in free throws attempted last season, and the 38 is as many or more than they had in 34 of their 35 games.
New Mexico went to the line 41 times in all, making 29, with Bairstow going 14 of 19 at the line.
"I can't fault our effort because I thought the effort was there," Bulldogs coach Rodney Terry said. "Did we get outmanned a little bit inside? Bairstow's a man. He's a load in there. Not only for us, but for a lot of people in the country, he's a load in there."
Fresno State (8-11, 1-5 in the MW) after being down 67-49 with 7:36 remaining still had a chance to make it a two-possession game in the final minute and a half, despite having to deal with the Lobos' seniors inside and some big shots from the perimeter from Cullen Neal.
The teams played to a 35-35 draw on the boards -- the Bulldogs, last in the league with a minus-11.7 in rebounding margin going into the week, outrebounded San Diego State and then pushed with New Mexico, Nos. 2 and 3 in the league, in their two games. They had 16 offensive rebounds against the Lobos, a season-high against a Division I opponent.
But they couldn't do enough to close, their offense stunted by 13 turnovers and some untimely misses.
Fresno State hit only 22 of 60 shots (36.7%), 8 of 25 at the 3-point line (32%). Guard Tyler Johnson, who had scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games, got to a team-high 16 but was harassed throughout by the Lobos' Kendall Williams and had a hard time getting shots.
"It was frustrating. They did the same thing last year as far as making me work to get anything really, to even get shots up," Johnson said. "Credit to them; hey did what they were supposed to do."
It didn't help the Bulldogs that New Mexico (13-4, 4-1) either got a basket or to the line almost every trip up the floor through the final 10 minutes of the game.
Of the Lobos' final 22 points, 17 came on free throws including the last nine.
"We knew tonight we were at a disadvantage inside," Terry said. "Their interior guys, they're going to put a lot of people at a disadvantage in terms of their size in our league. But we knew going in that we were going to have to try to limit their touches inside and try to play without fouling, and unfortunately we put Cameron at the line 19 times. He was there quite a few times."
Bairstow came in averaging 8.7 free throws per game and had a high of 20 in a victory over Colorado State. The 14 made free throws was a career high.
"He's just an aggressive player offensively," Terry said. "His initial duck-in and positioning in the post is pretty superior, not only in our league, I think in the country. He's as good as any low-post player trying to establish himself initially and when he does get it or if he catches it off the block, he's still very aggressive trusting his offense and what he works on. He's a very efficient player in the paint."
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