AP Images / Craig Fritz
The New Mexico Lobos (25-4, 12-2 MWC) send off their three seniors with a bang in front of a sold-out Pit crowd, outmuscling the Wyoming Cowboys (18-11, 4-11 MWC) to claim the Mountain West title.
"I felt like I was watching the movie Hoosiers with no shot clock," New Mexico head coach Steve Alford said immediately following the New Mexico Lobos' 53-42 defensive bout against the Wyoming Cowboys.
It was an apt comparison. After all, Wyoming boasts the best defense in the Mountain West and the eleventh-best in all of college basketball. Their deliberately slowed pace and physical nature lend to some ugly viewing for those wanting a highlight reel of crisp baskets and scaling dunks.
The Lobos weren't going to be the only team on the court stymied on the offensive end, however, as they held Wyoming to just 28% shooting--the lowest shooting percentage by a Lobo opponent all season.
"We're a defensive team. We don't mind not scoring many points," senior guard Chad Adams said.
Wyoming did their due diligence in mucking things up in the way of style points, but those don't tend to matter all that much when the victors are awarded a trip high atop a ladder, taking a pair of scissors to a net.
"There can be ugly play," Alford said. "But the win is always beautiful."
New Mexico's duo of big men in F Cameron Bairstow and C Alex Kirk once again continued to produce inside for the Lobos, racking up 13 and 15 points respectively. Kirk narrowly missed his eighth double-double of the year, recording nine rebounds in addition to a pair of blocks.
G Riley Grabau led the Wyoming Cowboys with 14 points on 4-9 shooting--all from three-point range. The Lobos gameplanned to limit recently returning F Leonard Washington, finishing with no points after attempting just four field goals. Washington played only 10 minutes and did not return in the second half, citing a back ailment in a frustratingly injury-plagued season. Larry Nance Jr. finished with a game-high 10 rebounds.
"Where we felt they could beat us is if Washington and Nance got going," Alford said. "I thought we did a really good job on both those guys."
With the win, the Lobos clinch at least a share of the Mountain West title with two away games remaining. A road win (or a Boise St. Broncos' victory over the Colorado St. Rams tonight) guarantees an outright claim with no team close enough to challenge the Lobos for the conference crown.
Even with the 'conference champions' hat-and-t-shirt festivities following the game, the mood was unsurprisingly somber as the Lobos bid farewell to their seniors Emmanuel Negedu, Jamal Fenton and Chad Adams who played their final home games in front of a sell-out crowd of 15,411.
"It's really bittersweet," Chad Adams said. "I'm going to miss it. I'm going to miss coming down the ramp and seeing the fans."
"I wanted to leave on a good note," Jamal Fenton said.
"Both of them have tremendous smiles and demeanors to them," Alford said of his departing seniors. "They were a joy to coach. That's the best compliment that I can give them."
After the game, coach Steve Alford was a sight in a blindingly cherry-colored blazer and a detached net draped around his neck--an anti-albatross of sorts, boasting an unburdened eleven straight wins when wearing his trademark outerwear and another Mountain West title added to an eye-popping resume.
"The family gives me a hard time about the red blazer. I've got friends that give me a hard time about the red blazer," Alford admitted. "[But] it's the red blazer that was put on me when I was hired."
'Beware of the net-around-the-neck guy,' a Mountain West columnist warned when making his predictions at the beginning of the season. What others cast aside in a conference that was supposed to be UNLV or San Diego State's for the taking, there it was once again in crystal ball-like clarity; a vision, a prophecy manifested.
"I love the look," Alford laughed.
"What takes the red blazer over the top is when you can put a net around it."