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UNM vs. Clemson: Lobos plan to get scrappy against imposing Tigers

Mar. 21—MEMPHIS, Tenn. — This stage, under this spotlight, is a new one for these Lobos.

It has, after all, been a decade since the Lobos have played in the NCAA Tournament.

But the script, and how to prepare, is not entirely unfamiliar.

The No. 11 seed UNM Lobos have, after all, been in win-or-go-home mode for more than a week after becoming the first team to win four games in four days at the Mountain West Tournament. Without winning the MWC tournament, the Lobos don't make it to the Big Dance.

Friday at the FedEx Forum when they face No. 6 Clemson (21-11, 11-9 and fifth in the ACC), the Lobos will be up against a team with a star big man and a far bigger players in general, but it won't be the first time UNM — which starts three small guards — has had to solve that problem.

"They're bigger than us, which is probably natural with an ACC team," said UNM coach Richard Pitino. "So our guys have got to be scrappy, gotta be tough.

"I think the best part of Vegas obviously was winning a championship, which was awesome, but the growth of our toughness and our scrappiness and our fight was really good. And with a team that's bigger than you, like the message has been all year, you just gotta find a way, and hopefully our guys do that and everybody's ready to go."

While Clemson boasts 6-foot-10 All-ACC Center P.J. Hall, who averages 18.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, the Lobos twice this season managed to overcome 6-9 All-America candidate Jaedon LeDee and beat the San Diego State Aztecs, including in Saturday's Mountain West Tournament championship game.

And while the Tigers start two 6-10 forwards, a 6-8 forward at the "3" spot and rank 22nd out of 362 Division I teams in overall average height, the Lobos did just manage to overcome the much larger, and 28th-ranked (in height) Boise State Broncos in last week's MW title run.

"P.J. Hall is as talented as it gets for a big guy," Pitino said. "They've got good size and length. So it's going to be a great challenge.

"Somewhat similar (to how Boise State plays) but not exactly the same. But that was kind of the comparison we tried to give the guys."

The players know what's at stake. And since they aren't getting any bigger before game time, the Lobos know the only way to combat Clemson is by bringing the fight to them.

"Just play the type of defense that we know we can play," sophomore point guard Donovan Dent said. "We know they have two solid bigs in the middle that rebound, play hard. We know we have to control P.J. Hall a good amount. Really it's up to us. We have to guard the ball and play the way we know how to play. ...

"Just being physical playing at our pace. We know we're a fast-paced team. I think they're kind of more a slower-paced team, looking at their stats a little bit. We just (have to) outrun and play physical."

MORE ON DENT: Dent said he's fully healthy now from the flu-like symptoms that kept him limited and largely a non-factor in last weekend's Mountain West Tournament championship game.

As for not getting to fully enjoy the celebration with his teammates last weekend?

"It was great to watch them play and win," Dent said. "Not being able to celebrate means you need to do it next year. So I get to celebrate next year. So I'm not really stressed about that."

THAT STAT: If there's a stat to watch, it might be this. How many points do the Lobos score on 2-pointers?

UNM ranks 18th in the nation in percentage of points scored on 2-pointers (57.4%). Clemson's defense, however, holds opponents to scoring just 46.5% of their points on 2-pointers, which ranks 321st in the country.

Basically, the Lobos really need to find a way to score inside — be it with their attacking guards or off second-chance points and post-ups by forward JT Toppin and center Nelly Junior Joseph. And the Tigers are at their best when they're stingy on those two pointers.

When UNM shot better than 50% on 2s, they went 16-4 this season. When Clemson allowed teams to shoot better than 50% on 2s, they went 3-7 on the year.

HAVE I SEEN YOU BEFORE? Clemson guard Chase Hunter said the Lobos, and their tempo in particular, remind him of past Tigers opponent.

"I think they play sort of like Alabama — quick guards; big, physical bigs that can do some things," Hunter said. "I think they play similar to Alabama, they're a team that can get up and down. And got some quick guards that can make plays for themselves. I think we prepared well for them."

Clemson beat Alabama 85-77 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Nov. 28 in the ACC/SEC Challenge.

New Mexico ranks eighth in adjusted tempo according to KenPom.com. Alabama is 11th.

REST VS. RUST: Both teams lost their regular season finales on March 9 — the Lobos by two on the road at NCAA Tournament team Utah State, the Tigers by five on the road at NIT team Wake Forest .

Since that day, the Tigers have played once, losing in the ACC Tournament to No. 11 seed Boston College by 21 (76-55). The Lobos won four games in four days, including beating three NCAA Tournament teams, to win the Mountain West Tournament.

So, do those conference tournaments matter?

"Losing early in the ACC Tournament in the fashion we did was not just disappointing, but embarrassing," Hall said. "So going back to these practices, going good on good and making sure we're sharpening our edges and making sure we're having a competitive edge and fight was huge for us."