Kirk leads New Mexico over No. 8 Cincinnati 55-54
By JOE KAY
CINCINNATI — Sean Kilpatrick had two options: Take the quick shot if it’s there, drive to the basket if it’s not. He caught the pass and thought he had just enough room to get the shot off.
He never saw Alex Kirk’s hand coming.
Kirk scored 15 points and blocked Kilpatrick’s shot just before the buzzer Thursday night, preserving New Mexico’s 55-54 win that handed No. 8 Cincinnati its first loss.
New Mexico (13-1) rallied in the second half behind its 7-foot center, who hit a 3-pointer, got a team-high seven rebounds and slapped away Kilpatrick’s jumper in the final seconds. Kilpatrick passed it in from the baseline to center Cheikh Mbodj with 4.5 seconds left, then got the ball right back with the two options.
“I thought I had him,” Kilpatrick said. “I could have drove, but I didn’t.”
Kirk figured that Cincinnati’s top scorer was going to let it fly and managed to get there just as the ball left his hands.
“I knew if I went out, it would be pretty difficult for him to get a shot over me and Tony Snell,” Kirk said. “I went out with my hands up and he was forced to take a tough shot. Luckily, I got my hand on it.”
That’s how Cincinnati’s perfect record went away.
Cincinnati (12-1) moved up to No. 8 this week — its highest ranking in nine years — and was trying to go 13-0 for only sixth time in school history. The Bearcats couldn’t salvage a tight game against a team known for knocking off top teams.
The Lobos have won six of their last seven games against ranked teams, leaving them 14-6 against the Top 25 during coach Steve Alford’s six seasons. They beat Connecticut earlier this season.
Cincinnati’s loss left Duke, Michigan, Arizona and Wyoming as the only unbeaten teams in Division I.
The Bearcats missed 21 shots inside the paint and shot 31.3 percent from the field. Kilpatrick had a team-high 15 points, but was only 5 of 22 from the field.
“Things have been too easy for us,” Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said. “We were going to get taught a lesson sooner or later. It manifests itself in many ways. Our inside finishing is beyond soft. You hold a team to 55 points, you should be able to win the game.”
Kirk scored nine points in the second half and led a surge that gave the Lobos their first lead. Then, he saved it with his third block of the game.
The Lobos were coming off a 70-65 home loss to South Dakota State that ended their four-week stay in the Top 25. Alford liked how they responded.
“To come in here and hold them to 54 points, that’s pretty pleasing for a basketball coach,” Alford said. “Our kids are tough and play hard and fight. We’re sitting here 13-1 and it’s not because we’re lighting things up. We came on the road and shot 38 percent and won.
“So it’s been our defense, it’s been our fight, and I think we had it tonight. If you play Cincinnati, you’d better come with that.”
New Mexico has gotten off to its strong start by drawing fouls and making free throws. The Lobos get 29.6 percent of their points from the line — most in the nation — and average 21.5 points per game on free throws. They have made more free throws (281) than their opponents have attempted (211).
They made only 6 of 11 against the Bearcats, but it was enough to pull out a game that was close throughout. Neither team led by more than six points. There were six ties and seven lead changes.
Cincinnati led 26-22 after a ragged first half. The Bearcats struggled to hit shots at the outset, a problem in their recent games. They made only four of their first 15 shots, all from behind the arc — two apiece by Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright.
The Bearcats missed 11 consecutive shots and went nearly 6 minutes without scoring in the first half, but never trailed because their defense was so good again. They hold opponents to 34.6 percent from the field — second in Division I — and are sixth with 7.4 blocked shots per game.
Cincinnati’s three-guard offense took a hit when Wright picked up his third foul at the 18:23 mark of the second half.
Kirk had a three-point play off a rebound, made one of two free throws, then made a layup for a 34-32 lead, New Mexico’s first of the game. Kirk later hit a 3-pointer — his fourth of the season — and another 3 by Williams made it 43-37 midway through the half, turning it into a back-and-forth game.
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