New Mexico Lobos Mountain West Basketball – in The Pit
Air Force (11-16, 5-11 MW) at New Mexico (23-5, 14-2 MW)
When/Where: 7 p.m. (MT), Wednesday – University Arena
On The Air: ESPN3 (internet only); 770-AM KKOB/Lobo Radio Network
GoLobos.com: Game Story, Statistics, Post-Game Interviews. LoboTV
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
Probably there is never a Lobo senior that you want to see go. But how do you say goodbye to Kendall Williams and Cameron Bairstow?
How do you say goodbye to those points, those rebounds, those Mountain West rings and all the honest effort that came in such special packages of achievement? How do you say goodbye to those dunks and to all those passes to open teammates?
All you can really do is go to The Pit, honor them with The Pit voices they have come to love, and help them take another step toward another Mountain West title.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” said Williams of his final Pit game. “I just have so much appreciation for the fans and for the court and the atmosphere. It’s just a unique place with the college environment, but the NBA-type arena.
“Just leaving there will be a change in life.”
Wednesday is Seniors' Night and Air Force is in The Pit as the final hurdle before New Mexico’s West Coast showdown with San Diego State. The Lobos will lose three seniors: Williams, Bairstow and Chris Perez.
“Chris has been a great teammate for four years and has done everything I’ve asked him to do,” said Lobo Coach Craig Neal. “Cam has had a great four-year career. I don’t think there has been anybody who has come farther than he has in four years. I don’t think anybody could have predicted what he did this season.
“Cam and Kendall have made a huge impact not only on us as coaches, but also the community and what they have done for the school and our program. It’s going to be emotional.”
Of course, there are distractions. It’s a bitter-sweet night of goodbyes. There also is a big game in the future that could be spoiled by a bad game in the now. Air Force can be tricky – Princeton offense, lots of zone.
“It’s always a challenge because of the way they play,” said Neal. “They do something totally different than anything you play against.”
It’s also the Lobos’ first look at the Falcons’ Princeton offense. The Princeton is a precise weave of Falcons that tries to produce a good shot off picks, off back-door layups, off treys. It’s a patient motion offense that tries to lull defenders into mistakes
It’s an offense that tries to generate high-percentage and open looks. And if the Falcons don’t nail them, they often are in trouble.
The Lobos have a height advantage particularly in the paint with the 6-9 Bairstow and the 7-foot Alex Kirk. The Falcons should have trouble with Williams, too. The Mountain West’s career assist leader is a handful.
“I just think he has let his game talk,” said Neal of Williams. “I don’t know of any (Lobo) who has had a four-year career that he has. Not stat wise.
“I told him when I recruited him that I thought he could be special. It’s kind of a blessing because it has come true. I don’t know if there’s any player in my years here who has made more of an impact on our program as far as scoring points, steals, assists, wins and just being a consummate teammate. And playing at a high, high level and improving every year.
“For him to do that (set assist record) is amazing.”
Williams, trying to share the credit, says a big reason he has so many assists is because of the talented Lobos he has been passing to over the years.
“Now, Bairstow is giving me the easiest ones,” said Williams. “I just throw it into him and he just fades away and makes it every time. It (talented teammates) made the game easier for me and hopefully I made the game easier for them. It’s a really a nice record to have.”
Bairstow doesn’t make them all, but he makes most of them. The Mountain West’s leading scorer is shooting .563 percent. He also is a front runner, along with Williams, for MW Player of the Year – an award won by Williams in 2013. Bairstow leads the MW in scoring with his 20.4 average per game.
“It’s really remarkable,” Neal said of Bairstow’s dramatic improvement in 2013-14. “That’s a credit to hard work and to a kid who had a vision. He kind of had a vision quest. He saw it and knew what he wanted to do.”
Ask Bairstow what he wanted to do and it’s team related. He wanted to be his best to help his team be its best and win another Mountain West title. And go to the NCAA Tournament. And win some NCAA games.
And turn pro when the Lobo stuff is all over.
“They both have had major impacts on our program. It’s not going to be an easy night,” said Neal. “But I’m excited to play another game, keep going forward in our journey to try and win another championship. We are playing for a huge prize at the end.
“I’m just telling them to do what you do.”
That’s good advice – probably all they need to hear and all they need to do. What Williams and Bairstow do best is win.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.