The New Mexico Lobos (22-4, 9-2 MWC) were battered, bruised, and coming off a hard-fought win earlier in the week at Fresno State. The Lobos held the Bulldogs to just 48 points on their court, but would need a similar defensive effort if they were to best hot-shooting Boise State (16-8, 4-6 MWC) at home; the Broncos average a blistering 74.9 points a game.
C Alex Kirk's left wrist was wrapped. G Demetrius Walker was out with a bruised knee. G Hugh Greenwood's ankle was still bothering him. And yet, the Lobos rode the emotional wave of the perpetually energetic Pit crowd and toughed out a gritty, ugly effort to the tune of a 60-50 final score.
"It was a gutty performance," New Mexico head coach Steve Alford said after the game. "We're tired, we're beat up. I knew this was going to be a very, very difficult game for us."
The Lobos' stifling defense held the Broncos to their lowest scoring output of the season with just 50 points. Their previous low was 55 following a 21-point loss at the hands of the Utah Utes in early December. Both teams struggled to find the bottom of the basket as Boise State shot just 37% to the Lobos 34%.
"We knew it was going to be a slugfest, just because of what these guys have been through," Alford said. "It was a gut-check performance."
The Lobos' biggest key to success on defense had to do with limiting the potency of Jeff Elorriaga--the best three-point specialist in the Mountain West--to just 1-9 from beyond the arc. The three-point shot has consistently haunted New Mexico throughout the season, but they were able to hold the Broncos to just 25%.
The Lobos continued to rely on a healthy dose of big men to set the tone on both sides of the court. Both Alex Kirk (7'0") and Cameron Bairstow (6'9") were featured in New Mexico's starting lineup. Bairstow led New Mexico in scoring with 16 points on 5-8 shooting, while Kirk--while making just one field goal--still made his immovable presence known with a game-high 12 rebounds and three blocks.
"We didn't want them to make us play four guards," Alford said on matching up his big men with the fleet feet of the Broncos. "We've kind of settled in to being a big-big lineup."
G Jamal Fenton came up big for the Lobos scoring 11 points including three treys coming off the bench. The Lobos would need a push from Fenton being without their top bench scorer from last season in Demetrius Walker.
"I thought Jamal Fenton really gave us a boost in the second half when we weren't making shots. That's what seniors have got to do."
Fenton echoed his coach's sentiments:
"Coach Alford and Coach [Craig] Neal were just in my head and saying I've got to step up and hit some shots," Fenton said. "I just did a little prayer, and God helped me."
G Derrick Marks led the Broncos with a game-high 19 points on 8-15 shooting. While the Broncos' leading scorer found plenty of success against the Lobos defense, he was the only Bronco to score in double-digits. That's a stark contrast from New Mexico and Boise's last game, a 79-74 Lobos win in overtime that saw all five Boise State starters reach double figures.
"We had to get through this game," Alford said. "I told them 'let's just fight like crazy, get as nasty as we can and try to come up with a 40-minute effort that's going to get us a win, and then we can work on rest.'"
The defensive battle started early until the 15-minute mark in the first half when a Jeff Elloriaga three was answered by a three by G Kendall Williams. A dunk by Williams the very next possession ignited the crowd, putting the Lobos ahead of the Broncos 8-7.
Two threes and a layup by G Tony Snell put the Lobos up by 6 as Snell and Williams combined to score 15 of New Mexico's first 16 points. Their offensive firepower was answered by Derrick Marks who answered with a three of his own and a jumper, pulling to the Broncos within one, 16-15 at the 8:00 mark.
A chorus of "We Want Josh!" permeated The Pit during the timeout as top recruit Josh Perkins was in town for a visit. The Albuquerque home crowd serenaded the young point guard at each stoppage in play, even bringing a massive banner bearing his name that draped across the locker room entrance.
Two straight baskets by F Cameron Bairstow in the final minutes of the half put the Lobos up 29-21. The big man shouldered the load on offense for the shorthanded Lobos as he was responsible for 9 of their last 10 points of the half. New Mexico clung to a 29-23 lead going into the locker room, but had to be encouraged by a flawless 14-0 record they've posted this season when leading at halftime.
The first points of the second half came at 17 minutes--two free throws by C Alex Kirk. The Lobos were up 33-29 with 15:05 remaining, until a scaling dunk by Cameron Bairstow forced the Broncos to take a timeout. A Tony Snell steal followed by two free throws after drawing a foul started to see the Lobos pull away, up 38-29.
An Anthony Drmic three cut it to 38-34 with 12:06 left. Nine straight points by G Jamal Fenton in the form of three three-pointers countered the brisk shooting of the Broncos as the bench maintained New Mexico's lead, 47-41. With time running out for Boise State, the Broncos failed to capitalize on repeated trips to the charity stripe. With 2:33 left Derrick Marks missed two free throws, while C Kenny Buckner missed a one-and-one to stay within striking distance. An Alex Kirk dunk made it 53-46 with 2:00 remaining that saw the Lobos finish on the heels of a 8-0 run over the final four minutes to secure the conference win.
The Lobos get a week to rest their ailing bodies as they prepare for a decisive Mountain West match on Saturday with the Colorado State Rams at Moby Arena. The victor will likely stake their claim to the Mountain West crown with both the Rams and Lobos boasting just two losses apiece in conference play. Every other team in the cluttered group has lost at least five.
"UNLV and San Diego State were picked to win this thing. Now there's two teams atop of it that are different names that are three games ahead of those teams," Alford said of the unpredictable Mountain West.
"We've got to get a lot of rest. This stretch run is going to be very difficult."