The Lobos survived a contested dogfight to defeat the Wyoming Cowboys in overtime, 72-69. Everybody knows Laramie is a difficult venue, but boy was this close and boy did the Cowboys fight hard. "They (Cowboys) keep it close with everybody," said Lobo coach Craig Neal. "They win a lot of games in here. This is a good win for our program."
It is a good win for New Mexico. The Lobos showed that they can win games even win the "big three" don't perform at their normal levels. New Mexico's leading scorer, Cameron Bairstow, had 15 points and four rebounds. Alex Kirk added 12 points, eight rebounds, and four blocks-one of which may have saved the Lobo's hide. Kendall Williams, who had an uncharacteristically cold shooting night (4-16), scored 10 points and had four steals.
But it was sophomore Cleveland "Pancake" Thomas that helped fill the scoring void and hit big shots when it counted. Thomas had 12 points (more on how later). Deshawn Delaney chipped in eight points and Hugh Greenwood had five.
Wyoming was led by Riley Grabau who hit four three pointers to score a total of 24 points. Grabau also went 10 for 10 at the charity stripe. Nathan Sobey added 16 points and Josh Adams had 12. Larry Nance Jr. had nine points, seven rebounds, and six blocks.
The Cowboys surprised the Lobos early by playing up-tempo ball. Adams had two quick dunks to put the Cowboys up 10-7. The Lobos responded with an 11-0 run to take a 18-10 lead midway through the first half. But the Lobos gave up a 6-0 run at the close of the first half to enter the locker room with a 33-31 lead.
At the start of the second half New Mexico used points by Kirk, Williams, and Greenwood to take a 47-39 lead. The Cowboys then rallied behind Nance and Sobey to take a two point lead around the 5:30 mark. Bairstow hit a clutch jumper to regain the lead and then Nance turned it over allowing Kirk to make another basket to put the Lobos up 57-54.
From here the two teams traded punches. Greenwood hit a three-pointer after a timeout to put the Lobos up by five with 1:47 left. At this point I thought New Mexico had it in the bag, but Wyoming fought back to within one-point with about 30 seconds left. Then Wyoming fouled Williams, New Mexico's go-to free throw shooter. Williams made the first but missed the second to hold on to a two-point lead.
Greenwood subsequently fouled Grabau as he drove to the basket with eight seconds left. Grabau calmly sank both shots to tie the game. Neal called a timeout to orchestrate a play. Williams dribbled the ball up the court and seemed to hesitate on the drive, instead settling for a long, off balance three pointer that didn't fall. Probably not the play that Neal designed. Overtime ensued.
Williams and Nance both missed shots to kick off overtime, and that's when Thomas hit a huge three pointer from the baseline to give the Lobos a 67-64 lead. Wyoming didn't do themselves any favors down the stretch by turning the ball over and missing four free throws.
Then the Cowboys fouled Cullen Neal with 1:30 left. Neal hit the first free throw to go up 68-64 and then nearly kissed the game goodbye. Neal drew a technical for directing a kissing gesture towards the Wyoming crowd. Grabau hit both technical free throws to make it a two point game. Neal then missed his second free throw at the other end.
The Cowboys had the ball down by two. Williams' quick hands forced a turnover allowing Thomas to snatch the ball and draw a foul. Thomas cooly hit both free throws to put the Lobos up 70-66. But then Grabau raced down the court and swished a contested three-pointer to keep it a one-point game. Bairstow was fouled at the other and missed both free throws; this was the Cowboy's window, one to tie, two or more to win. That's all they needed.
This is when King Kirk stepped in. Grabau drove hard to the basket with 0:14 seconds left for a quick layup. Kirk soared above to deny Grabaus shot, allowing Thomas to catch the errant ball and draw another foul. Thomas cooly strode to the other end and put two more free throws away to give New Mexico a 72-69 lead. Grabau attempted a last-second three but it clanked off the rim giving the Lobos the win. Talk about UNMerciful.
UNM had 37 rebounds to Wyoming's 31 and the Lobos had only eight turnovers. "We are going to win a lot of games, if we can do that," Neal said of the turnovers. "That says a lot about our guys." Wyoming did an excellent job preventing fast-break opportunities and playing thorny defense. Any time Bairstow or Kirk got the ball in the paint, the Cowboys swarmed in to frustrate the big men. "I thought Wyoming guarded us as good as anybody this year," said Neal.
Of Cullen's kissing technical, Coach Neal said this: "A player made a bad decision and hopefully he'll learn from it. (Referee) said he blew a kiss. I'll have to deal with that and I'll deal with it in the right way." But of course it's never this easy when the coach is that player's father.
Cullen maturely admitted his mistake on his Twitter feed: "I messed up. I'm young. Good road win. Tough to play there. Respect to the Wyoming squad! On to the next one." Let's hope the team and the fans can move on. Cullen is a talented player and an asset to the team.
Wyoming is going to win games at home against good teams. Laramie is a tough place to play, it's higher in elevation than Albuquerque where Lobo fans proudly proclaim that The Pit is a "mile high and louder than..." All the more why this was an important win for the Lobos.
New Mexico is now tied for first place in the Mountain West with #13 San Diego State (2-0) and suddenly resurgent Nevada (3-0). The Lobos continue their road trip as they face San Jose State Saturday night. To come home with two road wins in conference play would be huge for a team with high expectations. Not to mention, it would make the meeting with San Diego State all the more enticing.