It’s Winner Take All: The San Diego State Aztecs won 73-64 Wednesday night at UNLV which means the Aztecs and the Lobos will carry identical 15-2 Mountain West records into San Diego’s Viejas Arena at 8 p.m. (MT) on Saturday. The winner of Saturday’s battle between the two top teams in the MW will determine the 2014 championship and also the No. 1 seed in the MW Tournament to be played next week in Las Vegas.
New Mexico Lobos Mountain West Basketball – In The Pit
Wednesday: New Mexico 80, Air Force 52
Saturday: New Mexico at San Diego State
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.
The ending on Wednesday night was perfect. The Pit’s scoreboard favored the Lobos by 28 over Air Force: 80-52. Senior walk-on Chris Perez got to start – and he scored and kicked out an assist to Kendall Williams.
There were more fans in the stands for New Mexico’s Senior Night postgame celebration than most colleges have at tip off.
And now the Lobos can snap their attention to Saturday’s run with San Diego State in Viejas Arena where a Mountain West championship will be on the line.
“We are going into a hostile environment,” said Williams of the tip with SDSU. “Getting up for the game isn’t going to be an issue.”
The environment Wednesday night in The Pit was one of Lobo love. The Pit gave one of its bigger waves of wild emotion when Perez was introduced as a starter – but it got even louder when Perez scored inside with 42 seconds to play to finish New Mexico’s scoring in The Pit during the regular season.
It was an impressive move. He threw out a double juke, swirled and scored off the glass over (well, under) the Air Force big men.
“That was nasty,” said Williams of Perez’s move.
The game was almost anticlimactic to what came at the end. Coach Neal called out his seniors: Perez, Williams and Bairstow. He talked. They talked. There were lots of hugs and lots of family – and probably 90 percent of The Pit hung around for the festivities.
“Their footprints are going to be on this program for a long time,” said Neal of his seniors.
“This place is very special,” said Williams.
Said Bairstow: “It was pretty emotional to walk down The Pit for the last time; walk down the ramp for the last time. It’s kind of a crazy thing that it’s my last game in The Pit; the last time I’ll be playing there.”
Williams was a dynamic force in the Mountain West as a freshman. He leaves the league as the all-time assist king. Bairstow was solid – until 2013-14. Then he went sensational. He led all scorers Wednesday with 21 and added seven boards.
After the game, Williams threw in his vote for Bairstow as Mountain West Player of the Year. Williams took the award last year.
“It’s clear cut that Cameron should get it,” said Williams. “It’s never been about those (awards) for me. I’ll concede any award to a teammate that deserves it. There is no doubt he has been the best player consistently through the season.”
The Lobos ran to a 34-20 halftime lead over Air Force, now 11-17 and 5-12 in the Mountain West.
“It’s hard for them,” Coach Neal said of the emotion of Senior Night. “I don’t think we got off to the greatest of starts. I thought they overcame it. I thought we did a lot of good things offensively in the second half.
“I thought defensively we were pretty good the whole game. Our guys are really getting locked in on the scouting reports. They did everything we wanted them to do. Our defense has really improved. We have been getting better.”
UNM powered away from Air Force in the second half to bump the Lobos’ marks to 24-5 overall and 15-2 in the MW. The Lobos will be playing for the regular-season title Saturday at San Diego State.
Coach Neal was able to play a lot of players and spread out a lot of minutes. There were four Lobos off the bench, who played double-digit minutes: Cleveland Thomas (18), Cullen Neal (23), Merv Lindsay (16) and Deshawn Delaney (19). Of course, Delaney was bumped to the pine in favor of Perez’s start.
“You couldn’t feel happier for the kid. He really deserves that,” said Bairstow of Perez starting. “We all wanted him to start and felt he deserved it. He goes through as much as we have. We were very excited for him.”
Williams scored 13 and Alex Kirk and Cleveland Thomas each had 10 points. Hugh Greenwood had five assists and three steals. UNM shot 48.3 percent from the floor and Air Force shot 34.5 percent – 42.3 percent in the second half.
“It’s been a crazy four years but there has been a lot of winning throughout it,” said Williams. “There is still another big chapter that has to be written.”
That chapter really has several pages: at San Diego State, at the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas, in the upcoming NCAA wars.
Williams said he was pulling for a SDSU win at UNLV so “we go in with a one-game showdown.”
Williams got his wish.
First Half: New Mexico 34, Air Force 20
The Lobos got 25 points from the trio of Bairstow (11), Kirk (6) and Williams (8) to pull into a 14-point lead. Kirk got a dunk at the buzzer on an in-bounds pass from Neal to send The Pit rocking as the Lobos went up the ramp. Both teams launched their share of bombs as UNM went 4-of-14 from 3-point range and Air Force went 2-of-12. UNM went 8-of-10 from the free-throw line and Air Force went 2-of-4. UNM had 10 assists to three for Air Force.
The Lobos shot 36.7 percent in the half and Air Force was a chilly 27.6 percent. Justin Hammonds had nine points in the first 20 minutes and UNM’s Greenwood had four assists – one more than Air Force as a team. The Lobos had six blocked shots – Kirk with four.