The Air Force Falcons (14-7, 5-3 MWC) were quietly building a reputation throughout the Mountain West for lighting up the scoreboard with an offensive tenacity befitting of their name. Coming off of four straight conference wins--including a 70-67 upset over then-ranked SDSU--it seemed the senior-heavy Falcons were poised to finally challenge the New Mexico Lobos (20-3, 7-1 MWC) for a first-place conference billing.
Their aerial assault of three-pointers paired with a strong 16-point game by senior Michael Lyons kept the Falcons within striking distance through the second half, but a late-game altercation between players and coaches seemed to galvanize New Mexico and their raucous home crowd. After three technicals were called (on Air Force's Kyle Green and New Mexico's Jamal Fenton and Kendall Williams), the Lobos responded with a furious 8-0 run that took the remaining wind out of the Falcons' sails.
"I love Pit games," New Mexico head coach Steve Alford said referring to the in-house energy. "Nothing better."
After a minor confrontation between a handful of players and coaches was reviewed by officials, New Mexico came out blazing hot and couldn't seem to miss the basket.
"I'm not sure what the score was at that exchange, but after that exchange it was very good play on our part," Alford said.
All five Lobos starters reached double figures in scoring as New Mexico outrebounded, outworked and outclassed the Air Force Falcons en route to a dominating win, earning a lion's share of separation atop the Mountain West with one half of conference play officially in the books.
"We have separated ourselves from a vast number of teams in the league," Alford said. "When you are trying to win a championship, you are trying to eliminate as many of those teams as possible."
The inherent size advantage over Air Force was a heavy point of emphasis for New Mexico as they fed big men Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow early and often. Kirk and Bairstow each scored 14 points while combining for 17 rebounds, nearly half of the Lobos' total output in a 39-24 advantage on the glass.
"I think were were really successful in getting the ball inside and making our post moves," Kirk said.
Sophomore Hugh Greenwood scored 13 on 4 for 7 shooting while junior Kendall Williams chipped in 11 points on 3 for 7 shooting and 7 assists. The Lobos are now 10-0 in games in which Williams records at least 5 assists. Williams also added 4 steals in a sterling defensive performance that held the explosive Falcons' Princeton offense to just 29 points each half. They had previously scored as much as 91 this year in a January 19 game against Boise State.
Michael Lyons and senior Mike Fitzgerald were the only Falcons to reach double figures in scoring with 16 a piece. Senior Todd Fletcher recorded 6 assists as Air Force struggled mightily to post anything close to their season averages in field goals, three-point shooting and points per game. The Falcons even struggled in getting to the free throw line, an aspect they have excelled at in posting a sparkling 83% mark during the season. Air Force attempted only 15 shots from the charity stripe, making 11.
New Mexico's strategy was apparent from the tip as a 10-3, 3-minute run--including two field goals and a three by Alex Kirk--dared Air Force to neutralize their big men. Some brisk shooting including a three by the Falcons' Mike Fitzgerald at the 15:00 mark prevented New Mexico from getting too big a cushion. Back-to-back three pointers by Hugh Greenwood and Todd Fletcher made it 26-15 Lobos with 8:30 remaining. New Mexico continued to beat Air Force at their own beyond-the-arc game as a three by Kendall Williams and Tony Snell increased the Lobos' lead to 33-19. Plenty of open looks benefitted 52%-shooting New Mexico as Air Force was forced to compensate for the indomitable duo of Bairstow and Kirk inside.
A 7-0 run over 1:25 led by Michael Lyons and DeLovell Earls made it close---a 33-26 Lobos lead. The Lobos finished out the half strong, however, as a 7-0 run of their own helped make it a 42-29 halftime lead on the heels of a couple of treys by Greenwood and Williams.
An and-one by Mike Fitzgerald brought the Lobo lead down to single digits early in the second half. A momentum-shifting defensive stand at 16:34 including a forced jump ball, a deflection and a shot clock violation helped New Mexico reconstruct their lead late. After the verbal confrontation at the 6:55 mark, the Lobos pieced together an impressive several minutes of basketball, scoring 14 to the Falcons' one as Air Force became unraveled. A beautiful pass by Bairstow set up an earth-shattering dunk by Kirk to make it 77-56 at 2:00, and the Lobos scrambled to get younger players some valuable minutes on the heels of a lopsided score.
The Lobos will travel on Saturday to face the reeling UNLV Runnin' Rebels at the Thomas & Mack Center. Air Force hits the road to play the Nevada Wolf Pack, also on Saturday.
"You're seeing a team that's 20-3 against a great schedule," Alford said. "I think we're playing better, and that's saying a lot."
When asked if his team has developed a permanent identity, Alford offered some lofty praise.
"We are one of the toughest teams I've had," he added. "Kids that play hard, and kids that play tough."