New Mexico hopes to grow after losing big

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Losing by 25 might be a tough pill for New Mexico coach Steve Alford to swallow. But for him, it was no wakeup call.

He knew the early part of the season would be tough. The Lobos are coming off a year in which they won the Mountain West Conference regular-season title and an NCAA tournament game. Their challenging schedule was put together with the idea that reigning league player of the year Darington Hobson would be a senior on this team.

But with Hobson leaving for the NBA draft and reliable veteran Roman Martinez also departing, the Lobos are left with young players all over the court being pressed into action.

On Saturday night at Haas Pavilion, California won 89-64 in a game that marked New Mexico‘s first road test, and there could be more results like this one if the Lobos don’t grow up quickly.

“I hate it, but that’s what we’ve been dealt,” Alford said. “We made the schedule thinking Darington was going to be back. It’s a brutal schedule.”

New Mexico’s week of games against Pac-10 schools ended in defeat after the Lobos had a solid 14-point win against Arizona State at the Pit.

Against Cal, UNM got off to a slow start and crawled back to cut it to a two-point deficit at halftime. The Bears are also a young team coming off a regular-season title, but had veterans Harper Kamp and Jorge Gutierrez take over the game.

The Lobos? They’re left with tough-and-talented point guard Dairese Gary and players trying to find their way. With two-year starter Phillip McDonald having been out with an elbow injury and not expected to turn until at least next week, New Mexico started two freshmen -- 6-foot-11 Alex Kirk and guard Kendall Williams.

Sophomores Chad Adams and Jamal Fenton, along with freshmen Cameron Bairstow and Tony Snell, are also still getting adjusted. Forward Emmanuel Negedu is working his way back, playing in his first games since suffering from sudden cardiac arrest last year. And Drew Gordon, a 6-foot-9 transfer from UCLA, doesn’t become eligible until December to give the Lobos a veteran interior presence.

Cal, even in front of a home crowd deflated by the rout of its football team by rival Stanford, played like the more mature team. The result was a beatdown for New Mexico. Of the second half, Alford said that was “as bad as we can play.”

“We’re athletic and pretty skilled, but we’re not a thinking team yet,” said Alford, whose team committed 18 turnovers and shot 38.8 percent from the field. “We’re not a very smart team.”

New Mexico did get a ray of light from Fenton, however briefly it shined. Cal fans chanted “Gary Coleman” at the quick 5-9 guard, but he came off the bench to score a career-high in points by halftime with 13 and found himself starting the second half. He finished with 14 points.

“I don’t care about that,” he said. “I want the win.”

A Houston native, Fenton represents the Texan that Alford had success in luring to Albuquerque along with recruits from the West Coast. To Gary, it’s not a talent issue the Lobos are facing here.

“We have all the talent in the world,” Gary said. “We just have to learn from our mistakes.

“We have to take baby steps. We have to crawl before we can walk.”