By Andy Swanson
“Sometimes second homes aren’t as pretty as you think they are.”
Those are the strong words University of New Mexico head coach Steve Alford shared when asked if he and his players were aware of comments made by SDSU players claiming that the Pit was their second home.
“Yea, we knew about that statement” Alford continued with the sly smile of a coach who enjoyed watching his 14th ranked Lobos dominate the visiting Aztecs before 15,411 rowdy home fans.
If any team had the right to make such blatant bulletin board comments it would certainly be the Aztecs. After all, Steve Fisher’s team owns 5 of the 12 road wins by visiting teams in the past eight seasons, including two of the last three meetings.
By all indications, the Aztecs appeared to have the Lobo’s number.
Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow made sure to put that streak to an end.
The New Mexico big man duo affectionately referred to as Kirk Cameron, combined for 41 points and 12 rebounds, including 12-14 from the free-throw line.
Kirk, who finished with 25 points, including a career-high three 3-pointers, hit a game clinching trey with 1:32 left in the second half to seal the victory for New Mexico.
The 7-0 center raised three fingers to the air while running down the court - a fitting exclamation point to complete an excellent performance by the Los Alamos native.
“When we come together and just relax and have fun, we’re a pretty good basketball team,” said Kirk after the game.
After leading the Aztecs by just two at halftime, the Lobos extended to a 15-point lead with 12:06 left in the second half. James Rahon made a layup with 4:34 left to bring the Aztecs within five, but that was the closest SDSU would get to the Lobos in the final minutes of the game.
The Lobos closed out the game in the same fashion that has made them successful this season, with timely free-throws and mistake free basketball in crunch time.
“We won the last five minutes in the game again tonight,” said Alford. “These guys just understand winning championships.”
The loss eliminated the pre-season Mountain West Conference favorite Aztecs from a chance at the season title - something Alford and the Lobos took great pleasure in taking from their conference rival.
When asked about the taste of revenge, Alford said “I don't know what that tastes like, but it tastes good to knock them out of the MWC race.”
Snell’s Defense on Franklin
Tony Snell’s stifling defense on Jamaal Franklin was a big key to victory for the Lobos on Wednesday.
Although Franklin finished with a team high 16 points, Snell helped in holding the reigning Mountain West Conference player of the year to just 3-13 shooting, with the majority of Franklins point’s coming from the free-throw line.
Snell’s effort earned the praise from Alford after the game. “His maturing as a basketball player has really happened at the defensive end,” said Alford regarding Snell’s maturation into a complete player this season.
Williams Contributes in Other Ways
It was apparent early that limiting Kendall Williams was the first priority on SDSU’s defensive game plan, as Steve Fisher was focused on not letting Williams build off of his career high 46-point game against Colorado State last Saturday.
Williams finished with just 8 points on 1-6 shooting, but added six rebounds and a game-high 8 assists. His tenacious defense on SDSU guards Franklin, Tapley, and Thames was a key factor in limiting the Aztecs to just 36.2% shooting.
Kirk and Bairstow filled the main offensive role after Williams was taken out of the game.
Alford was not the least bit surprised that his big men stepped up when needed, as it is something his team has done all year.
"That is what is great about this team. Kendall goes for 46 last game, and then our bigs combine for 41. We are hard to prepare for," said Alford.
Looking Ahead to Wyoming
With a win against the visiting Wyoming Cowboys on Saturday, the Lobos will clinch at minimum a share of the regular season Mountain West Crown.
The game will have an added emotional factor as seniors Chad Adams and Jamal Fenton will play their final game in front of the home crowd at the Pit.
A conference-clinching win on senior day would be a fitting end for Fenton and Adams, who share the distinction of having the most wins of any outgoing seniors in the history of UNM Basketball.