"The Pit ... it's like our second home," senior guard Chase Tapley said a year ago. The San Diego Union-Tribune called it "no problem" for their Aztecs just a day ago.
They had every reason to be confident. After all, the San Diego St. Aztecs (20-8, 8-6 MW) had posted a remarkable record in Albuquerque's routinely sold-out arena of 15,411, winning five of their last seven. Somehow, these Aztecs were simply unfazed by the wolf-howling, trash-talking and earth-shaking antics of the Lobo faithful that make The Pit the most difficult place to play in the Mountain West.
The New Mexico Lobos (24-4, 11-2 MW) came out determined to tighten their vice-like grip on the conference championship race. Their resounding 91-82 victory over the Colorado St. Rams on Saturday put them an even two games ahead, but the task was far from finished. A win over the Aztecs would officially eliminate them from from conference championship contention. They had plenty to prove after being embarrassed by the Aztecs at Viejas Arena 55-34 a month ago. All the Aztecs had to do was play their style of defensive-minded basketball coupled with heavy doses of leading scorer G Jamaal Franklin. Easy, right?
"They've had some success in here in years past which doesn't sit well with us," New Mexico head coach Steve Alford said following the game.
"It's very unusual for a team to win two times in a row in The Pit. That was definitely the focus, stopping them from winning a third," Cameron Bairstow said.
The Lobos were clearly up to the challenge and answered with a gritty, hard-fought 70-60 dismissal of the Aztecs in front of a deafening Pit crowd.
New Mexico's tandem of big men in F Cameron Bairstow and C Alex Kirk were "dominant," in the words of Alford, combining for 41 points and 12 rebounds. Both players made a mockery of their less-than-stellar performances in Viejas last month, including three game-changing treys by seven-foot Kirk.
"I thought a big key tonight was what our two bigs did," Alford said.
The Lobos' defense drastically limited the scoring opportunities of multi-threat Jamaal Franklin, holding him to just three field goals. Franklin--leading the Aztecs' game averages in all five categories--was the only San Diego St. player to reach double figures with 16 points. The Aztecs shot only 36% from the field and just 17% from three-point range.
"We did a pretty good job holding Franklin in check," Alford said. "He just plays with an incredibly high motor."
The Lobos shot a tidy 48% from the field and 30% from beyond the arc as their scoring output was more than doubled from their last date with San Diego St. Quietly joining the double-figured efforts of Bairstow and Kirk was Tony Snell who finished with 10 points on 3-8 shooting, including an inspired defensive effort in a physically demanding game that saw players on both sides favoring various limbs after exiting the arena. Even after blowing the whistle 43 total times, the referees seemed content with letting the two notoriously dominant defenses duke it out on the floor and on the glass.
"The refs were letting us play, which is the way I like it," Bairstow added.
Defensive pressure caused a Jamaal Franklin turnover early in the first half. A Tony Snell three-pointer made it 7-6 at 15:37. Kendall Williams--fresh off of a 46-point effort at Colorado St. on Saturday--recorded his first points of the night when he hit two free throws at the 12 minute mark. The Lobos struggled on the glass early as the Aztecs manufactured possession after possession with a flurry of offensive rebounds. A Winston Shepard jumper put the Aztecs up 15-13, but the Lobos fought back to reclaim a 23-20 lead at 4:47. Following a synchronized flash mob by UNM's Student Section '26,' an Alex Kirk three made it 27-22 Lobos with 3:00 left. Two quick Hugh Greenwood fouls at the end of the first half allowed the Aztecs to hang around, down just 28-26 to begin the second half.
A Hugh Greenwood three started to point the Lobos' offense in the right direction, establishing a 31-26 UNM lead at 18:51. Another Alex Kirk three gave UNM its largest lead of the night at 38-30, with Kendall Williams finally notching his first field goal of the game at the 15:00 mark. An offensive barrage led the Lobos on a 6-0 run, putting them up 48-33 until an acrobatic Jamaal Franklin shot stopped the bleeding at 11:35. A Chase Tapley three whittled the lead down to 10; 50-40 with 9:23 remaining. After appearing to be hurt, G Xavier Thames made a driving layup that brought the Aztecs to within 6. Cameron Bairstow fouled out with 2:38 left as UNM nursed an 8 point lead. Alex Kirk single-handedly dashed all hopes of an Aztec comeback when he notched his third three of the night, blowing the game open and making it 64-53 Lobos as New Mexico quietly pulled away during the final minute of play.
The Lobos have a chance to clinch the Mountain West championship this Saturday during Senior Night at home against Wyoming. "We owe it to our fans who have been so great this season for us," Alex Kirk said.
As for the Aztecs, it's a precipitous fall for the conference's preseason favorite--an undoubtedly sweet taste for the streaking Lobos that find themselves leaving a field of competitive and nationally respected Mountain West teams devastated in their wake. "What tastes good is that they're eliminated from the conference race," Alford said.
"Sometimes second homes aren't as pretty as you think they are."