March 10, 2008
New Mexico (24-7, 11-5 MWC) meets Utah (16-13, 7-9 MWC) Thursday in the quarterfinals of the 2008 Phillips 66 Mountain West Conference Championship. Tipoff is 9:35 p.m. Mountain Time from the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas. The game will be televised live on CBS College Sports (CSTV) and The Mtn. Live audio is available via All Access at golobos.com.
The Lobos, 8-1 in their last 9 games, took 3rd place in the MWC after a 71-52 win at Colorado State. UNM is the 3rd seed, Utah No. 6.
The 24 victories ties for the most by a New Mexico team during the regular season. Norm Ellenberger's 1977-78 Lobos were 24-3 heading into the NCAA Tournament while Dave Bliss' 1995-96 team was 24-4 going into the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
Picked to finish 4th in the MWC preseason poll, the Lobos produced their most league wins (11) in nine years as a member of the Mountain West Conference. The 11 conference victories are the most by UNM in 10 years, since getting 11 in the Western Athletic Conference in 1998.
Head coach Steve Alford needs one win to match the most wins in his NCAA Div. I coaching career. His 2005-06 Iowa team went 25-9.
SEASON SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL
What has happened in the past 4-plus months has been difficult for even the most optimistic Lobo fan to imagine. But first, a look back:
New head coach Steve Alford inherited four returning starters from a somewhat unpredictable bunch that finished 15-17 in 2006-07, just the program's 2nd losing season in the past 24 years. Picked to finish 5th in the MWC, New Mexico was 4-12 in the Mountain West, tying TCU for last place. The Lobos lost 12 conference games for the first time since 1959, and were 2-12 away from The Pit, 1-10 in true road games.
On Oct. 4, 2007, one of the team's returning starters - senior wing Tony Danridge - broke his leg and would miss the 2007-08 season. The steady Danridge was a three-year starter who averaged 12.5 points as a junior and was expected to be a tremendous complement to J.R. Giddens on the perimeter.
Now, to the present. With essentially the same players as last year, except for starting freshman point guard Dairese Gary, Alford's first Lobo team enters the Mountain West Conference with a 24-7 record, having tied the school mark for wins during the regular season and a 9-win improvement from a year ago. Picked to finish 4th in the MWC, the Lobos went from worst to 3rd by closing the conference season with 8 wins in 9 games. UNM has won 8 road games, tying a program record and equaling the total for the past five seasons (8-43) combined.
The past 22 games, only one starter from last year - Giddens - has been in the starting lineup. Giddens has been unworldly and the consummate teammate in his final collegiate season. Gary has been a steadying influence at the point. Heady sophomore Roman Martinez has probably made more non-box score plays than anyone on the team. Junior post Daniel Faris has stepped up when UNM has needed him the most. Two returning starters - senior guards Darren Prentice and Jamaal Smith along with 3-pointer marksman Chad Toppert - average nearly 27 points off the bench.
Even Alford has been mildly shocked at the response from his team and the slightly unexpected results from a season that has been a wonderful ride.
NEW MEXICO-UTAH SERIES INFO
It's game No. 122 in a series that started Jan. 3, 1952. The Utes have a 76-45 lead, although it's 8-4 in the Lobos' favor the past 12 games.
New Mexico has won the last 6 in The Pit, including 77-67 in overtime on Jan. 22. Utah has a staggering 51-6 lead in games played in Salt Lake City, although UNM snapped an 18-game losing skid at the Huntsman Center on Feb. 23 with a 72-71 victory.
Three of the last four games between the two rivals have gone into overtime - one double OT - and the one that didn't require extra time was decided by a single point last month in Salt Lake City.
LOBOS-UTES IN CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS
It's the 8th meeting between New Mexico and Utah in a conference tournament with the Lobos holding a 4-3 advantage, including 2-0 in the Mountain West Conference.
UNM'S TOURNAMENT HISTORY
The Lobos have a 27-21 record in 24 years of conference tournaments. The breakdown is 22-14 with two titles (1993 and `96) in 16 years in the Western Athletic Conference, but just 5-7 and one championship (2005) in eight tries in the Mountain West. UNM has been one-and-done in the MWC tourney five of the past six years.
New Mexico has lost in the first round of the MWC Tournament six times in eight years with three of those knockouts coming courtesy of UNLV. UNM has never won an MWC Tournament game seeded fifth or lower, going 0-4 in those contests. UNM lost to BYU in the 2001 title game and beat Utah to win the 2005 championship.
New Mexico has given up double-digit leads each of the past two years: 2006 in Denver, UNLV rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to edge the Lobos 65-64 in the first round; last year, TCU came back from a 28-14 hole to beat UNM 62-54.
NO. 3: A FAMILIAR SEED
New Mexico is a 3 seed for the 10th time in 25 years of conference tournament play, its most frequent posteason slot. The Lobos have a 12-8 record as a No. 3 seed, including a Western Athletic Conference title in 1993 when the tournament was staged at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City.
UNM AT THE THOMAS & MACK
Not the best venue for New Mexico is the Thomas & Mack Center. That's because the Lobos are 3-12 in the facility since the Mountain West Conference commenced play there in 2000. Two wins came over Colorado State and Utah in the 2001 MWC tournament. The other victory was against UNLV during the 2005 regular season.
UNM-UTAH: NOTES FROM THIS YEAR'S GAMES
New Mexico swept the series for the first time since 1989. UNM shot just 42.4% in the 2 games, but hit 50% (15-30) from 3-point. Utah shot 49.5% against the Lobos. UNM committed just 14 turnovers in the two games compared to Utah's 30. Jamaal Smith came off the bench to average 14.5 points, including 14 of 16 from the FT line. Chad Toppert made 7 of 12 from 3-point and is 16 of 27 from long range in his last 4 games against the Utes.
Johnnie Bryant averaged 21 points in the two games, Luke Nevill 14.5 points and 7 rebounds.
Jan. 22 at The Pit: Daniel Faris scored 15 points and J.R. Giddens and Chad Toppert both had 14 to lead New Mexico to a 77-67 overtime victory. Jamaal Smith had five points and Giddens and Dairese Gary both added four in the overtime for the Lobos, who beat the Utes for the sixth straight time at The Pit. Giddens and Smith both missed potential game-winning shots in the final 15 seconds of regulation and Tyler Kepkay missed one for Utah. The Lobos had nine free throws as they outscored Utah 17-7 in the overtime.
New Mexico held Utah center Luke Nevill, who came into the game averaging a team-high 13.6 points, without a shot in taking a 31-21 halftime lead.
Junior Daniel Faris
Senior Jamaal Smith
Feb. 23 in Salt Lake City: J.R. Giddens scored 19 points, including one of three straight 3-pointers down the stretch as New Mexico pulled ahead and then held on for a 72-71 win. The Lobos snapped an 18-game losing streak to the Utes at the Huntsman Center, dating to 1989. UNM's last win at the Huntsman Center was 79-76 on Feb. 16, 1989.
Chad Toppert and Jamaal Smith also hit 3-pointers during a late 11-2 run for the Lobos, mostly while Utah's Luke Nevill was on the bench after picking up his fourth foul. By the time Nevill returned for the final 1:49, the Utes trailed 63-59 and never recovered.
The Lobos led 72-69 with 8.8 seconds left after Dairese Gary missed the second of two free throws and Utah's Shaun Green got the rebound. The Utes rushed downcourt, but Tyler Kepkay drove for a layup instead of taking a 3-pointer, which could have tied it. Kepkay missed the layup and put back his own rebound as the horn sounded with the Lobos holding the 1-point edge.
Smith finished with 17 points, including 8 of 10 free throws in the final 1:11. Johnnie Bryant scored 17 points for the Utes, including a steal and 3-pointer with 15.6 seconds left that allowed the Utes to make it close. Nevill added 16 points and five rebounds.
Senior Jamaal Smith
Alford is 332-190 (63%) into his 17th season. His teams have qualified for postseason play 11 times, produced 13 winning seasons and reached 20 wins on nine occasions.
Alford is 2-0 in his career against Utah.
In eight seasons at Iowa, Alford compiled a 152-106 record with a school-record seven consecutive winning seasons, and six postseason appearances. The Hawkeyes won two Big Ten Conference tournament titles (2001 and `06). Iowa was 17-14 in 2006-07. It was 9-7 in the Big Ten, tied with NCAA teams Illinois and Purdue for fourth place.
Prior to Iowa, Alford posted a 78-29 record in four seasons (1992-95) at NCAA Division III Manchester (Ind.) College and a four-year (1996-99) record of 78-48 at Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State). The Bears defeated Wisconsin and Tennessee to advance to the Sweet 16 of the 1999 NCAA Tournament before losing to top-ranked Duke in the regional semifinals. In 1997 Alford led the Bears to a 24-9 record (second in the Missouri Valley Conference) and a trip to the National Invitation Tournament.
In somewhat of a rarity, Alford has never been anything but a head coach at the collegiate level. His first position came at Manchester at the age of 27.
RECORD-SETTING SEASON FOR ALFORD
Steve Alford has set a school record for most wins by a New Mexico head coach in his rookie season. Dave Bliss was 22-11 in 1988-89. The most wins by an Alford-coached team at the NCAA Div. I level is 25 at Iowa in 2005-06. His 1994-95 Manchester (Ind.) squad went 31-1 in NCAA Div. III.
LOBOS TIE RECORD FOR ROAD GAME WINS
After going 8-43 in true road games - played on the opponents' home floor - the past five seasons (2003-07), UNM is 8-5 this year, which ties a school record set three previous times: 8-4 in 1972-73, 8-2 in 1977-78 and 8-3 in 1995-96.
The MWC record for road wins is eight as well set by UNLV in 2006-07 and Air Force in 2003-04, and equaled by BYU this season.
UNM has won 4 straight conference road games for the first time since a 5-game run in 1998.
HISTORIC IMPROVEMENT BEING MADE
New Mexico is currently a +9 in wins from last year. That figure ranks as the 5th-biggest improvement in school history. It took New Mexico only 20 games to surpass last year's victory total (15-17) and UNM nearly tripled last year's wins in conference play (4-12).
The Lobos were a +7 in conference games in 2007-08, which is the 2nd-greatest jump of all-time and an argument could be made it's the best ever.
During World War II - when schedules were abbreviated - UNM fashioned a 3-0 record in the Border Conference in 1944 with all three wins coming against Texas Tech. The Lobos improved to 12-0 in 1945 for an improvement of +9.
LOBO BULLET NOTES
The Lobos had sellout crowds of 18,018 in their last two home games against BYU and UNLV. The last time UNM had back-to-back sellouts was for Arizona and New Mexico State in November/December of 1996. The last time for consecutive sellouts in conference games was 1994 when Lobo fans bought every ticket for six straight games.
Average attendance for 18 home games in 2007-08 is 14,361, an increase of 1,508 per game over last year's average of 12,853. Provided there are no more home games, it would be the Lobos' highest average attendance in five years, since 14,679 in 2003-04.
COLORADO STATE RECAP AND POSTGAME NOTES
Daniel Faris' 15 points and eight boards helped New Mexico pad its NCAA credentials with its 24th win, a 71-52 rout of the Colorado State Rams, who went winless in the Mountain West Conference.
Under first-year coach Steve Alford, the Lobos tied their school record for regular season wins set by Norm Ellenberger's 1977-78 team (24-3) and tied by Dave Bliss's team that went 24-4 in 1995-96.
Faris collected his points and rebounds in just 22 very efficient minutes. Chad Toppert added 14 points and J.R. Giddens had 13 for the Lobos, who took a 39-30 halftime lead that was never threatened in the second half.
The Rams hung tough until the three-minute mark of the first half, when the Lobos went on a 9-0 run to take control at 35-27. Darren Prentice and Jonathan Willis sank back-to-back 3-pointers during the spurt. The Lobos closed the half on a 13-3 run.
Rams guard Marcus Walker, the league's leading scorer, finished with just six points, 11 below his average. Josh Simmons was the Rams' leading scorer with 12 points despite making just one basket - he sank all 10 of his free throws.
Senior J.R. Giddens
Junior Daniel Faris
Junior Chad Toppert
Senior Darren Prentice
Freshman Dairese Gary