Stevens: Alford's Lobos Run Past Air Force & Toward UNLV Rebels
March 8, 2012
Lobo Men - Mountain West Tournament - Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, Nevada
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
The bench that Lobo Coach Steve Alford leaned on so much in New Mexico's run to the 2012 Mountain West regular-season title might be even more critical in a planned three-day run in Las Vegas.
Especially if New Mexico's path goes through the Mountain's two Top 25 teams -- UNLV and San Diego State.
For sure, that path includes Vegas. The Runnin' Rebs held on to defeat Wyoming 56-48 Thursday night to earn the right to play New Mexico, 79-64 winners over Air Force. The Lobos and the Rebs will run at 9:30 p.m. (MT) Friday.
San Diego State stayed alive with a 65-62 buzzer-beater over Boise State. The Aztecs play Colorado State, 81-60 winners over TCU.
Yes, this is another one of those Vegas' numbers game - fresh legs are nice. The Reb legs might be a little wobbly as Wyoming made a late run and put a scare in the Thomas & Mack's home team.
In Game One of the Lobos' planned three-game run, the Lobo bench - specifically Demetrius Walker - was outstanding in UNM's quarterfinal win over the Falcons.
Alford went frequently to his bench Thursday night in the Vegas Thomas & Mack, but the number that produced the best was No. 40 - Walker.
"Everything was working for me tonight," said Walker. "I just wanted to come out here and play strong and perform like I had been in practice."
Walker went 5-of-6 from the field and 6-of-8 from the line and led all scorers with 19 points. He also was 3-of-4 from long range.
"I thought we just hung in there," said Alford. "We took the 3-point away, but we gave them a lot of points in the paint."
Walker was joined in double figures by Drew Gordon with 15, Kendall Williams with 13 and Tony Snell with 10. Gordon had to share board honors with Hugh Greenwood as both Lobos had seven rebounds. Williams had five assists and UNM had only ten turnovers. UNM won the board battle, 29-22.
Air Force actually won the scoring battle inside as the Falcons outscored UNM 24-18 in the paint, but a Lobo in the paint with the ball was often hammered.
Air Force shot 50 percent from the floor to 46.5 percent for New Mexico. The Lobos huge edge came at the free-throw line where UNM shot 31-of-37 and from the bench where the Lobos outscored Air Force, 32-19..
Tonight, it was great," Alford said of his Lobos' ability to get to the line. "We got there 37 times. That was the game plan. We wanted to go inside. We wanted to drive the ball hard. We obviously are bigger than they are so we wanted to attack them inside.
"(Gordon) got off to a slow start. In the second half, he was much more assertive. The whole key is winning and advance."
The Lobos appeared to be in coast mode throughout the second half and probably coasted a bit too much heading down to the five-minute mark.
"In the second half, we kind of let them come back in the game and made it more difficult than it needed to be," said Walker, whose 19 points were a UNM career high.
Said Alford: "I thought we had some lapses defensively. We got back-cut a little bit more than we had in the first two games. We did take the 3-point shot pretty much away from them."
The Falcons were down 67-50 (17) at the 7:15 mark, but threw out a run that cut UNM's lead to 69-60 with 4:46 to play. Alford called time at 4:39 - up nine.
UNM came out and Walker drilled a high jumper from the baseline and UNM was up 72-60.
"Our bench has been doing it all year. Tonight was Walk's night," said Williams. "It was his night to hit a lot of shots." Walker's bomb carried UNM into the 3:29 media break. The Lobos then went inside to Gordon for two and the Lobos were up 74-60 and the Falcons were running out of clock.
"Eventually, we wore them down," said Williams.
Said Alford: "We got the stops we needed."
The win handed UNM its 25th win of the year against six defeats. Air Force leaves the tourney at 13-16. Air Force got 17 points from Michael Green, 14 from Kyle Green and 12 from Todd Fletcher.
The game wasn't exactly the romp that the Lobos laid on the Falcons in the two regular-season wins, but it also looked like UNM was trying to save a little fuel for the Mountain West semifinals.
The Lobos, UNLV and San Diego State all appear to be NCAA Tournament teams, but that doesn't mean these three teams are not eyeing the MW title and improving their seed for the NCAA dance.
First Half: New Mexico Lobos 45, Air Force Falcons 31
There were three things that favored the Lobos big time in the first half: Walker, defense and tempo.
The Falcons ran out to a 15-14 lead and then watched the Lobos and Walker run and gun. "If you can get in the 40s against Air Force in a 20-minute period, you have to feel pretty good," Lobo Coach Steve Alford said at the halftime break.
If you get 14 points in 11 minutes from a bench player, you have to feel good too. Walker was the main gunner as UNM pulled out of that 15-14 hole and into a 14-point halftime lead. It could have been more for the Lobos.
Air Force guarded its 15-14 lead at the 10:58 mark before Walker drilled a three off a feed by Phillip McDonald. Gordon, Bairstow and Walker then each hit two free throws as UNM expanded its lead to 23-15. Bairstow had six points off the bench.
Walker then drove the baseline and dropped in a short shot as a Falcon slid underneath him and was called for the block. Walker drilled the free throw to push UNM to 26-15 at the 7:52 mark. UNM was on a 12-0 run. Walker made it a 15-0 run with a trey that formed a fat 29-15 Lobo lead.
Air Force finally got off the 15 mark with a single free throw: 29-16. At the 5:34 mark, an intentional foul by Green on Walker led to a 34-18 Lobo lead.
UNM made it 36-18 on a Williams transition dunk off a Greenwood feed. Williams hung on the rim a bit too long and thumped his chest on the landing and got whistled for a technical. Air Force used that small break to make it 36-22.
The Lobos were up by 17 points, 41-22 with 3:44 to play before settling for the 45-31 halftime lead. "Our bench has been terrific all year," said Alford. "Demteirus kind of spearheaded that but I thought Cam (Bairstow) had some really good minutes too off our bench."