With their big man still feeling the effects of the flu, the New Mexico Lobos (17-2, 4-0 MWC) were forced to defend the best rebounding tandem of the country in Pierce Hornung and Colton Iverson of the Colorado State Rams (15-4, 2-2 MWC). Combining for an eye-popping 19.1 rebounds a game, the Lobos would need someone other than their reliable seven-footer Alex Kirk to shoulder the load for them tonight.
"Alex gave us what he could give us. He hadn't practiced all week," New Mexico head coach Steve Alford said. "It's been a very difficult 48 hours for [him]."
Colorado State won the rebounding battle by a staggering 14—undoubtedly a result of New Mexico missing the usually dominant inside presence of Kirk—but the Lobos still managed to hold on after withstanding a second half comeback by the resilient Rams despite being down 22 points.
"It might be a little natural sometimes when you get up by that much to kind of ease up just a little bit, but coach has really been drilling it into us that we can't do that," New Mexico forward Chad Adams said after the game. "We can't let teams back in the game, like Colorado St. especially."
The Lobos' Tony Snell chipped in a game-high 23 points on 8-19 shooting while going 3-5 behind the arc as he quietly turned in the most productive three-game stretch of his college career. Chad Adams was the only other Lobo to reach double-figures with 13 points of his own as New Mexico struggled to find its shot late in the second half. New Mexico made up for 36% field goal shooting as their aggressiveness afforded them multiple trips to the charity stripe. The Lobos made 21 of their 26 free throw attempts which helped make up for the huge disparity on the glass.
"I think we're probably the only team in the top 25 that have scored less field goals than our opponent has [but] if you look at the free throw stat, we're dominating it." Alford said. "That tells me we're aggressive, and we are taking advantage of a very important piece of the game, and that's fouling."
The first half saw four lead changes before the Lobos started to gain a little bit of cushion after going on an 8-2 run at the 12:00 mark. A monster dunk by Tony Snell—along with two threes—made all the momentum New Mexico's as they finished the half with an 8-0 run over the final four minutes to go up by 10 over Colorado St., 35-25.
A quick three by Snell opened the second half as the Lobos' lead grew to 12. A Chad Adams three and a physics-defying turnaround shot by Hugh Greenwood started to see New Mexico pull away with a 45-31 lead with 15 minutes left. Jamal Fenton added a three of his own which saw the Lobos' lead increase to a seemingly insurmountable 20.
With 9:00 to go, Wes Eikmeier started to heat up, connecting from behind the arc to pull the Rams within 15. On the very next possession, a Dorian Green three started to send shivers down the spines of 15,411 at The Pit as the lead shrunk to 56-44. Down by just 8 with 5:00 to go, the Rams appeared to lose steam as an out-of-bounds Daniel Bejarano shot and an ill-advised Dorian Green pass all but eliminated any chance of a comeback. A questionable Tony Snell inbounds pass led to an easy Colorado St. bucket to keep things close, but some clutch shooting from the free throw line made the difference as the Lobos held on to win.
"We're a pretty good basketball team and I think we're getting better, because we beat a really good basketball team tonight." Alford said.
Highly touted 6'10" Colorado St. big man Colton Iverson led the Rams with a game-high 14 rebounds. The Lobos perennial thorn-in-the-side Wes Eikmeier led the Rams with 20 points on 8-16 shooting while nailing four three-pointers. Dorian Green was the third Ram to hit double-figures with 14 points and 3 assists.
With an unblemished 4-0 mark to begin play in the Mountain West, the Lobos match their best conference start since the 1992 season while posting their best overall start since 1977-78. The road doesn't get any easier as the Lobos' next games see them on the road playing both San Diego St. and Wyoming.
"We realize we have a two game lead on everybody in the conference right now," Adams said. "We're just trying to finish out."
The Colorado St. Rams will travel to play Fresno St. on Friday before returning to play Boise St. at home the following week.