If the Eastern New Mexico University men’s basketball team can get itself healthy and play as hard as it did on Monday night at Long Beach State, the Greyhounds should be a factor when Lone Star Conference play resumes in two weeks.
Playing without 6-foot-8 senior forward Curtis Wilkinson (hand injury) and getting limited minutes from 6-7 senior forward Max Carrier (aggravated knees), the Greyhounds (9-4) were game but undermanned in their 76-54 loss to the 49ers.
“The kids played their hearts out,” ENMU coach Andrew Helton said Tuesday. “Long Beach is really good. They’ve got a chance to be a really good mid-major team.”
The 49ers’ record (5-5) is modest, but deceptive. They beat then third-ranked Pittsburgh 86-76 on the road in mid-November, and also were competitive in losses at top-10 teams Louisville (79-66), Kansas (88-80) and North Carolina (84-78).
They had some trouble putting the Hounds away, though. ENMU trailed 40-33 after starting the second half on a 7-0 run, and was still within 14 points with about three minutes to go.
Senior guard Stefan Mirabal broke out of a recent shooting slump, hitting 5-of-10 from 3-point range and finishing with 19 points, while senior forward and Long Beach native Aaron Edwards added 14 points and seven rebounds.
Helton said he’s encouraged by his team’s improvement on defense as it prepares to resume LSC action on Jan. 4 at home against Tarleton State. Wilkinson and Carrier should be ready for that one, Helton said, adding that Daniel Strong, a 6-5 sophomore backup forward from Albuquerque who has played in only four games due to a broken foot, is also expected back soon.
ENMU has split four conference games, losing at Texas A&M-Kingsville and Incarnate Word and winning at home last week over Angelo State and Abilene Christian.
“I think we’re guarding pretty good right now and that’s huge,” Helton said. “I know Abilene Christian’s 0-4 (in the LSC), but the league’s a bear. We’re playing harder and better defense, and I hope that continues.”
NCAA Division II teams are required to take a seven-day Christmas break, which began on Tuesday. The Hounds resume practice for Tarleton (10-1, 3-0 LSC) on Dec. 29.
“They’re very good,” Helton said of the Texans. “They have some good big players and they’re well-coached. I think they’re one of the better defensive teams in the country.”