The first game of Craig "Noodles" Neal's tenure as New Mexico head coach tipped off more than 8,000 miles from Albuquerque at 3 a.m. MST in a tiny gym only big enough to seat 700 fans.
The setting was unfamiliar but the outcome certainly wasn't.
A New Mexico team that notched 29 victories last season began its three-game exhibition tour of Australia with a narrow win reminiscent of many the Lobos achieved a year ago. Guard Kendall Williams scored 24 points and big men Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk added 22 and 19 respectively as New Mexico rallied from an 11-point third-quarter deficit to open the "Noodles" era with an 87-85 victory over the Sydney Kings.
What tipped a taut fourth quarter in the Lobos' favor were a pair of game-sealing steals in the final seconds.
With New Mexico leading 86-85 and only a few ticks remaining, Australian native Hugh Greenwood stepped in front of a pass intended for Sydney's leading scorer James Harvey and hit the second of two free throws to extend the lead to two. Williams then clinched the victory for the Lobos with another steal on Sydney's last possession, giving New Mexico 10 steals for the game.
If the result was reminiscent of the Steve Alford era, the way New Mexico achieved it showed some differences in Neal's coaching philosophy. Strictly a man-to-man team in recent years, the Lobos pressed and mixed in some zone in the second half, which helped them erase the double-digit deficit against a Sydney team highlighted by ex-Vanderbilt star A.J. Ogilvy and Harvey, a longtime Aussie national team standout.
There were a few alarming signs from the game, however, for New Mexico. The Lobos are no closer to finding a replacement for Tony Snell as Cleveland Thomas started in the Chicago Bulls draft pick's small forward spot and produced only two points and one rebound in 24 minutes. New Mexico's first-half defense wasn't all that crisp either as Sydney scored 48 points before the Lobos clamped down in the third quarter.
All and all, though, Neal was pleased with the first dress rehearsal for his debut season as a head coach. He shares his thoughts on the game below in today's diary entry, with the interview expertly conducted by Kirk and Williams. Below is also video of the Lobos visiting Cullen Neal in the hospital the day after the freshman guard underwent surgery to remove an inflamed appendix.
New Mexico coach Craig Neal on Tuesday night's game:
New Mexico players visit Cullen Neal in the hospital:
Previously in the series: