PORTALES — Basketball's a lot easier when you play with the lead. Same thing when your bigs dominate.
Center Curtis Wilkinson dominated the paint with a 19-point, 20-rebound performance, and the Eastern New Mexico University Greyhounds jumped out to a 7-0 lead, withstood two Incarnate Word charges before pulling away late for a 75-57 Lone Star Conference victory on Saturday at Greyhound Stadium.
"That was probably the best game I've seen a big play in my career," ENMU coach Andrew Helton said of the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Wilkinson, who set an LSC season high for rebounds in a game, sparked numerous runs with athletic putbacks and threw down two exclamation point dunks in the final four minutes. "We got big plays from Reggie Nelson as well, and Kyle Lantz did a terrific job offensively and defensively."
Nelson led all scorers with 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting for Eastern (13-8, 6-6 LSC), which for the first time in a few weeks wasn't the team digging out of an early hole.
"It was really important (to start well)," said Lantz, a sophomore guard from Manzano High who scored eight points and hit a 3-pointer during a 10-2 run that gave the Greyhounds the lead for good after Incarnate Word started the second half with an 11-0 burst. "We've had a couple of slow starts lately, and it seemed like we were usually playing from behind."
The shoe was on the other foot Saturday, when Cardinals point guard Shaun Umeh was called for a reach-in foul 33 seconds in, then picked up a technical foul when he slammed the ball in disgust.
The Cardinals started slowly after that, hitting just one of their first eight shots while the Greyhounds scored the first seven points. Umeh, the team's leading scorer at 12.4 per contest coming in, spent much of the game on the bench in foul trouble and managed just an academic layup with 22 seconds to play.
Helton thought it helped that Umeh went out early, but said Incarnate Word brings two great players off the bench in Darrell Southworth and Roddy Jordan, who combined for 10 points.
"It's not like they don't have other good players," Helton said. "But it did help."
Cardinals coach Ken Burmeister wasn't nearly as complimentary of his squad following a frustrating night.
"We're too fragile; we're not tough enough to lose a starter," Burmeister said. "Our freshmen aren't ready for the road. They're not ready for the Lone Star Conference."
The Cardinals recovered well from the tough start as Southworth hit his lone basket, a 3-pointer, to cut the lead to 18-15 with 9:24 to go in the half. The Greyhounds responded with an 8-0 run, including treys by Lantz and Nelson and a flying one-handed tip-in that briefly sent the crowd into hysterics.
"Wilkinson really came to play," Burmeister said. "He just handled our big guys."
Chris Johnson led three in double figures for the Cardinals with 16 points.
The Hounds now have an open week and Helton, who called this season one of the worst he's seen with injuries, has no idea if his roster will include Aaron Edwards (shoulder), Max Carrier (knees) or Daniel Strong (concussion), who all sat out Saturday.
"I hope they (are able to play)," Helton said. "They're all day-to-day."