Lobos Begin New Year's Eve Celebration With Big Win
Dec. 31, 2011
By Greg Archuleta
The Lobos ended 2011 on such a positive note that they might not yet want 2012 to start.
Drew Gordon scored 18 points and Kendall Williams made a key steal and dunk late in the second half as the University of New Mexico men's basketball team won its 10th straight game with a 64-60 over Saint Louis at the Pit on Saturday afternoon.
A crowd of 15,177 at the Pit watched a New Year's Eve game in which UNM met up with an old acquaintance (but not forgot) in Billikens coach Rick Majerus. The Lobos' aggressive game plan was the difference in ending Saint Louis' own six-game winning streak.
"We're a much better team now than we were five weeks ago," UNM head coach Steve Alford said. "This team (the Billikens) got into us like (New Mexico) State did five weeks ago. We didn't handle it very well then, so I think we've grown and matured a little bit."
Saint Louis (12-2) tried to take away shots off the Lobos' screens and pick and rolls, so New Mexico (12-2) instead attacked the rim. The strategy led to 35 free throws (24 made), which were pivotal in UNM staying in the game.
"We knew we were going to have to drive the ball," UNM coach Steve Alford said. "You look at a game like this; our assists were down because most of our points were really scored on dribble drives and at the free-throw line.
"Getting to the line 35 times tells me without watching tape our guys were very aggressive. I like that."
Phillip McDonald's 3-pointer with 7:10 left in the game - his only field goal of the night - gave the Lobos a 48-45 lead. UNM then went more than four minutes without another field goal but kept the lead, thanks to its ability to get to the foul stripe.
UNM held a 58-55 lead with 2:06 left after a jumper by A.J. Hardeman when Williams made the key defensive play of the night. He stole a pass at the top of the Saint Louis key and rambled for a slam dunk at the other end.
The bucket gave the Lobos their biggest lead of the night, 60-55, with 1:34 left. From there, UNM made just enough free throws to escape with the victory.
It was basically a one-possession game most of the night," Alford said. "Any time you can take that to two possession or three possessions, that's big and (Williams') steal got us to a two-possession game. That was big."
Majerus, who coached 15 years at UNM's longtime nemesis Utah, left the Pit with high praise for the Lobos.
"They're a really good team," Majerus, in his fifth season with the Billikens, said of the Lobos. "In the old days, I always thought this was the best job in the league, I still think it is.
"Look at the crowd today; I mean look at the city. You're a pro team; you're the Lakers of New Mexico. It's like Kentucky's the pro team in Kentucky. This is a great place to live; this is a great place to play. This is one of the best places in America to play at - in terms of if you're the home team - and one of the worst on the road, which is nice."
The Billikens appeared ready to spoil UNM's New Year's Eve plans early on. After a nip-and-tuck opening eight minutes, Saint Louis stretched a 14-12 lead to a 21-14 bulge with 7:38 left in the half. Kwamain Mitchell's 3-pointer kicked off the Billiken run, but the visitors would not hit another shot from beyond the arc until Cody Ellis' bomb with 1:19 left that cut the Lobo lead to 60-58.
Saint Louis finished 3-of-18 from 3-point range, but relied on forward Brian Conklin's game-high 20 points to stay in the game. He was 8-of-12 from the field, collecting several baskets by backing down UNM defenders. The Billikens got to the free-throw line 16 times, making 11.
Both he and Gordon had nine rebounds in the game. Gordon was 5-of-7 from the floor and hit 8-of-11 from the free-throw line.
Gordon said UNM had to adjust to Saint Louis' defense, which impressed him. UNM's own defense, however, impressed Gordon more.
We just needed to play tough and focus," Gordon said. "Coach has been harping on us all season that we need to focus and concentrate, and I think down the stretch we did that."
Fenton came up big with a 10-point effort as the only other Lobo scoring in double figures. Williams added nine points.
Alford lauded the play of post A.J. Hardeman, who finished with five points, four rebounds and had the assignment of guarding Conklin for much of the game.
Drew and Jamal obviously had good games for us, but A.J. Hardeman - he fights," Alford said. "Everything he does doesn't show up in the stat sheet, but he does all the other things, He takes charges, he blocks shots, he's in the right position, he helps a teammate when (the teammate) gets out of position.
"For him to make free throws down the stretch and shoot that little 12-footer when our entire bench, staff and players were saying no, no, no, no - and then it was `Great shot, A.J.' He just made some game-winning plays for us."
The Lobos return to action Tuesday night against Houston Baptist at 7:30 p.m. in the Pit, then close out the non-conference portion of their schedule on Saturday afternoon against North Dakota at 1:30 in the Pit as well.
With UNM looking at a chance to go 14-2 heading into Mountain West play, its confidence is soaring just in time for 2012.
I think we're really good," Gordon said. "We've got the potential to be great."
$10 Tickets Available in UNM Student Section for MBB vs. Houston Baptist: These tickets are available 48 hours prior to game while supplies last.
For those fans wanting to experience what it is like to sit in the student section at a Lobo men's basketball game, this is your chance. For next two home games fans can purchase student section seats for $10 per ticket if seats are still available. For all games played while The University of New Mexico is not in session, unused student section tickets will be released 48 hours prior to tip to sell to the general public for the following games:
Jan. 3 vs. Houston Baptist at 7 p.m. (Become available to public on Jan. 1 online at www.unmtickets.com);
Jan. 7 vs. North Dakota at 1:30 p.m. (Become available to public on 1.5 online at www.unmtickets.com).
Student Tickets for all Lobo women's basketball can be picked up for any game during normal business ticket office hours. The following link details distribution dates and UNM student ticket policy: http://www.golobos.com/ot/students-m-baskbl.html.