March 7, 2009
Saturday: Lobos 74, Wyoming 73
Up Next: Lobos vs Wyoming, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Las Vegas (MWC tourney)
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
If you are going to win your first conference championship in 15 years, you might as well do it in dramatic fashion. You might as well twist some guts and wring all you can get out of this special moment.
You might as well go down to the wire and have a player who missed seven straight shots knock down the game-winner, and you might as well have your game's hero turn over the ball in the closing seconds and allow the bad guys a final chance to snatch that title away.
That's basically what happened to the University of New Mexico Lobos Saturday in Laramie, Wyo., when they exchanged punches with the Cowboys for 40 minutes with a give-and-take attitude that led to both teams looking to make plays at the end in order to find a survivor as much as winner.
Oh, the Lobos survived and got the win, 74-73 to grab a piece of the Mountain West Conference championship. The Lobos ended the regular-season MWC race locked in a three-way tie with Brigham Young and Utah, all at 12-4.
The Cougars get the No. 1 seed in Las Vegas and will play at 1 p.m. (Mt) Thursday against the winner of the Colorado State/Air Force pigtail game on Wednesday. Utah has the No. 2 seed and plays No. 7 seed TCU at 7 p.m. (Mt) Thursday. The No. 4 seed San Diego State Aztecs play No. 5 UNLV at 3:30 p.m. (Mt) Thursday.
And at 8:30 p.m. (Mt) Thursday in Vegas' Thomas & Mack, the Lobos and the Cowboys get to do it again. If that quarterfinal game is anything like the shootout the two teams staged in Laramie on Saturday, fans had better be wearing body armor.
You have to give the Cowboys some credit for making UNM's win and title one that the Lobos had to scratch and claw and pull out with heart and guts and big shot after big shot.
Which is pretty much what the Cowboys did, too. There were 14 lead changes in the second half. Both these teams were clutch and fierce, but there was only one winner and only one league champ to walk away from the battlefield.
Maybe the biggest difference in this game and in the outcome was that the Lobos had Tony Danridge and the Cowboys didn't. The UNM senior once again stepped full into his potential and maybe proved that the best player in the MWC is a Lobo. Danridge, who scored 29 against Utah on Tuesday night, hit that figure again Saturday afternoon in Wyoming's Arena-Auditorium. Danridge was awesome.
Danridge went 14-of-20 from the floor and added four rebounds, three assists and one steal and ironically provided a hair-raising moment for the Lobos when he turned the ball over with 35 seconds to play, handing Wyoming the ball and time to turn UNM's 74-73 lead into something more favorable for the Cowboys.
The Lobos' defense stepped up just enough to force Wyoming's Brandon Ewing into tossing up an off-balanced runner/ jumper about one second before the buzzer. It rattled off and the Lobos had their title.
The Lobos' go-ahead bucket at 1:22 had a threatric twist to it, too. Senior Chad Toppert popped in a jumper to pull the Lobos out of a 73-72 hole and into the 74-73 final. It was Toppert's only field goal of the game.
Maybe the Cowboys mistake was allowing Toppert to get inside the 3-point line to take a shot. Toppert, one of the top long-range guns in UNM history, was 0-of-7 from behind the line when he hit his game-winning jumper.
Lobo coach Steve Alford mentioned before this game that it was possible a role player might have a dramatic impact on the outcome. Alford was right. Again, it was UNM's luck it was a Lobo. Sophomore Jonathan Wills banged in two huge treys to help the Lobos keep pace with Wyoming in the second half. Wills hit one trey at 11:30 to hand UNM a 56-52 lead. He hit another at 2:11 to push UNM up 72-70.
The Cowboys then threw in a 3-pointer to take the 73-72 lead that led to Toppert's jumper, which led to Wyoming missing a shot with 58 seconds to play, which led to Danridge's turnover with 35 ticks to go, which led to Ewing's miss at the almost-buzzer.
It was an amazing game and an amazing accomplishment for Alford in his second year as a Lobo to hand his program something it hadn't seen in 15 previous seasons -- a league title.
Danridge was joined in double figures by junior Roman Martinez with 15 points and six boards. Dairese Gary had a solid game with nine points and five assists against one turnover. Ewing ended with 16 for the 'Pokes and Sean Ogirri topped his team with 17 points.
The Lobos shot 49.2 percent from the field to 46.7 for Wyoming. The teams went 31-31 on the boards and UNM had a better game taking care of the ball with 12 turnovers to 16 for Wyoming.
The win allows the MWC champions Lobos to carry a 21-10 overall mark and a 12-4 league record into this week's MWC Tournament to be held in Las Vegas. Which brings up several questions. When was the last time the Lobos won a regular-season title and a league tournament title in the same year?
And maybe had the league's Player of The Year, Coach of The Year and Sixth Man of The Year (Toppert), too?
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous articles are available at The Richard Stevens Corner