If the Nevada Wolf Pack (11-10, 2-5 MWC) had any chance of showing signs of life in the Mountain West race and upsetting the New Mexico Lobos (19-3, 6-1 MWC) at The Pit, they would need big games by their heralded backcourt pairing of Deonte Burton and Malik Story.
The duo certainly came as advertised, but weren't nearly enough to overcome the lights-out 56% shooting mark of the Lobos—a season high. Consider a 32-6 bench scoring advantage by the Lobos and a devastating 52% mark from three-point range; the Wolf Pack were within arm's reach of an upset even through the second half.
"This was obviously a key game," New Mexico head coach Steve Alford said. "I thought we played well and I thought Nevada played well."
For the Wolf Pack, Malik Story had a game-high 20 points on 8-17 shooting as Deonte Burton chipped in another 13 while going 4-13. Burton had entered the game leading the Mountain West conference in scoring averaging 18.5 points a game, but was largely held in check by New Mexico's defense until late in the second half.
"That's as patient and as well as I've seen Nevada play in the tapes that I've been able to watch," Alford said. "We're getting everybody's best shot."
New Mexico's bench—including a resounding 12-point effort by Demetrius Walker and another 10 by Chad Adams—pushed the Lobos over the top offensively as the Wolf Pack defense was never able to key in on the main source of the damage. New Mexico hit shots early and often from a number of key players, even on a night when top scorer Tony Snell was quiet due to illness.
"The key to this game might have been the production that our bench got versus their bench," Alford said.
Demetrius Walker went 3 of 6 with a couple of three-pointers after struggling badly, going 3 of his previous 28. Asked how it felt to find himself back in the lineup logging time in the all-important closing minutes of a game, Walker said "It felt good. It's just like going into war, and coming out victorious."
Hugh Greenwood led the Lobos in scoring, rebounding and assists—the second consecutive game he's done so—while hitting four of five three-pointers. Hugh was asked if he felt any added pressure to score on nights where New Mexico couldn't clearly identify its hot hand:
"I just try to help out whatever way I can. Whether it's rebounding, assist-wise ... or tonight, it was scoring."
Alford assured everyone that while the Aussie is always given a green light for scoring efforts similar to tonight's, the implication could be lost in translation.
"In Australia, sometimes green light means red light or yellow light," Alford joked. "We're still trying to work through that international barrier."
Each team failed to gain any separation in the first half, with Nevada losing the foul battle early 5-1. At the seven-minute mark, an absolute barrage of five straight threes by Malik Story, Demetrius Walker and Kevin Panzer threw both offenses into high gear for the duration of the half.
A spinning layup by Jamal Fenton made it 24-21 Lobos, followed by a 8-3 New Mexico run at the four-minute mark. Nevada wouldn't be denied as they refused to let New Mexico seize the momentum and pull away. An Alex Kirk dunk gave New Mexico a narrow 33-30 lead with 1:30 left. Nevada entered the half feeling good about their chances, down just 34-32.
A block on Malik Story by Alex Kirk—one of his career-high five for the game—let New Mexico set the tone defensively to begin the second half. Deonte Burton started to heat up, hitting a three to tie it all up and later chipping in two free throws to give Nevada a lead.
A three by Hugh Greenwood gave back New Mexico its lead at the fourteen-minute mark, while senior Chad Adams hobbled off after tweaking a previously hyperextended knee.
Deonte Burton hit another three to give Nevada its last lead of the night, 51-50 at 11:00. The Lobos answered with a calculated 10-2 run over four minutes giving them a slightly comfortable cushion, 60-53.
Two clutch free throws by Kendall Williams put the Lobos up by 10—their largest lead of the night-—and a Hugh Greenwood steal and layup all but iced the game for the Lobos as they finished off the Wolf Pack on the heels of a 8-1 run.
The Lobos now have sole possession of first place in the Mountain West at 6-1, with Colorado St. and Air Force close behind at 5-2. New Mexico hosts Air Force at The Pit on Wednesday in a pivotal Mountain West contest--one that could see the Lobos fall from their perch on top of the heap if the Falcons continue to decimate conference play.
Losses tonight by preseason favorites San Diego St. and UNLV have them looking way up at a cluster of teams, setting up a thrilling second half of tightly contested and increasingly unpredictable Mountain West basketball.
"When you get to February, you try to get some separation from some teams. There's now three teams at least four games behind where we're at," Alford added.
"This has been a demanding stretch and we have hit February 19-3 and 6-1 in the league. These guys are doing some special things."