March 5, 2011
Lobo Men's Basketball - In The Pit
Saturday: Lobos 66, Air Force 61
Lobos at Mountain West Tournament - Las Vegas
Thursday: Lobos vs. Colorado State, 3:30 p.m. - Thomas & Mack Center
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer / GoLobos.com
The ending for Senior Night/Dairese Gary Night was perfect for No. 5 because of the scoreboard.
As much as anything, what makes this special Lobo happy is to look up above the Bob King Floor and see Lobos on the winning side of the board.
It was that way Saturday in The Pit, but New Mexico's 66-61 Mountain West win over Air Force wasn't easy. It was a grind and Gary did a lot of the grinding for the Lobos scoring a team-high 17 points, dishing out seven assists and being clutch at the line with an 11-of-13 effort.
"You have to get a win on your Senior Night," said Gary. "It was stressful, but we came out with the win and afterwards it was an amazing feeling."
The very end of the night ended with Lobos coach Steve Alford talking it up about the point guard who followed Alford to New Mexico. Then Gary said goodbye to The Pit for the last time in regular season.
But this is not the last time Gary plays basketball in a Lobo uniform as New Mexico heads into next week's Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas likely needing a MWC title in order to push into NCAA play. It not, the Lobos will see postseason via the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).
The Lobos open the MWC dance at 3:30 p.m. against Colorado State. UNM will play as the No. 5 seed and CSU is the No. 4 seed. The Lobos beat the Rams in The Pit. The Rams returned the favor in Fort Collins.
"We owe them something," said Lobo Jamal Fenton, who came off the bench Saturday to spark UNM with 11 points and five boards. "We have to have a better effort than we did last time at their house."
Said Gary: "We are looking forward to playing them. Last time, we didn't put a whole game together. We have been putting whole games together lately, so we'll see what happens on Thursday."
The Lobos' win over Air Force probably doesn't go down as a complete game in the eyes of Coach Alford. The Falcons led most of the first half, went up 31-24 with 3:35 to go, and carried a 33-31 lead into the break.
"It was a big night for us, very emotional," said Alford. "We had to come back off a big win at BYU and then back that up. We knew we had our hands full against a disciplined Air Force team.
March 9-12 - Las Vegas
No. 8 Wyo vs. No. 9 TCU, 3 p.m.
No. 1 BYU vs. No. 8/9 Winner, 1 p.m.
No. 4 CSU vs. No. 5 UNM, 3:30 p.m.
No. 2 SDSU vs. No. 7 Utah, 7 p.m.
No. 3 UNLV vs. No. 6 USAF, 9:30 p.m.
Semis, 7 p.m./9:30 p.m
Championship, 5 p.m.
"We were nervous about it. We only had Friday to prepare for them. You have to give their system credit. They make you think."
Said Gary: "It was a test for us. Playing Air Force is always tough."
The Lobos came out in the second half and got a quick steal by Gordon that led to a Gordon dunk. A missed layup by Air Force led to a 3-pointer by Gary and UNM was up 36-33. The Lobos never again trailed.
UNM went up 51-42 at the 8:54 mark on two Gary free throws and UNM massaged that into its 20th win of the season against 11 losses. The Lobos carry an 8-8 MWC mark to the tourney in Vegas.
Air Force made it interesting by clawing to 63-61 with 34 seconds to play, but the Lobos sealed the win with two Kendall Williams' free throws with eight seconds to go.
Alford said his team's "big push" at the end of the season was to get into the No. 4 vs. No. 5 game at the MWC tourney. If UNM gets by CSU, the Lobos most likely would play No. 1 seed Brigham Young, which opens with the winner of the TCU/Wyoming game. BYU hammered Wyoming on Saturday, 102-78.
The Lobos swept the Cougars during the regular season and likely spoiled BYU's shot at a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tourney. Probably the only way BYU could return to that top spot is by rolling through the MWC tourney.
If UNM reaches the MWC title game, the Lobos most likely would be looking at either UNLV or San Diego State.
Gary was joined in double figures Saturday by Drew Gordon with 13 and Fenton with his 11. "I saw we were a little low on energy and my job is to be a spark off the bench," said Fenton.
Gordon had 10 boards as UNM won that battle, 35-25. The Lobos won this game at the line going 22-of-29 to 4-of-7 for the visitors from Colorado. The Falcons had six more field goals than the Lobos, but couldn't keep the Lobos and Gary off the line.
"Dairese has done a tremendous job for us," said Alford, referring to both a career and a season. "We're really going to miss this guy, but the important thing is he's laid a blueprint for our younger guys to follow.
"He has willed us to win and now we are right in the mix of it."
The mix Alford is talking about is the MWC tourney. The Lobos begin trying to stir things up on Thursday.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.