Long live the Pit!
And the New Mexico Lobos’ dreams of a Mountain West Conference championship.
On the last night before the legendary structure’s face lift, the Lobos turned the building into an ear-shattering blast from the past with a 77-71 victory over league-leading Utah.
Make that co-league leading Utah.
The Utes were witness to one of the most electric Pit nights this decade, and the sellout crowd of 18,018 witnessed the Lobos (20-10, 11-4) draw even with the Utah (20-9, 11-4) on top of the MWC standings with one game to go. Brigham Young (10-4), which visits Wyoming (7-7) tonight, can make it a three-way tie.
The Lobos finish the season on Saturday at Wyoming while Utah plays host to TCU (5-10) and BYU is at home against Air Force (0-14).
Senior night was just that for the Lobos as Tony Danridge, Daniel Faris and Chad Toppert combined for 58 points, and all turned in remarkable performances.
Danridge and Faris each went 8-of-15 from the floor with Danridge scoring a career-high 29 points, while Faris had 16 points and 10 rebounds and stuck it to Utah’s 7-foot-2 MWC Player of the Year candidate Luke Nevill all evening. Toppert added 12 points and two big 3-pointers.
“It wasn’t easy for them,” UNM coach Steve Alford said of his senior trio. “I told them before the game, ‘regardless of what happens today, you’ve been very special for our program. I appreciate what you’ve done. Just go relax and play.’ For all three to make huge contributions to our team was tremendous.”
As was the crowd.
The standing-room-only throng took that term literally, sitting only occasionally during a raucous second half in which the Lobos simply outhustled and outscrapped the Utes for nearly every loose ball. UNM had nine steals to the Utes’ four, committed just seven turnovers to the Utes’ 18 and had an incredible 13 offensive boards to the Utes’ one.
One? With a 7-2 monster in the middle?
Yep. And that one resulted in an immediate Lobo steal.
“That’s who we are, we talk about it all the time,” said Alford, whose team had 18 more shots than Utah. “We’ve got to get the loose balls, we’ve got to get the deflections, we’ve got to be disruptive that way.”
Someone else who was pretty scrappy, yet again, was UNM’s coach.
After the Lobos went on 6-0 run to snap a 39-39 tie, Utah coach Jim Boylen stomped onto the floor screaming at an official. Alford went haywire. The Lobo coach, who has now won more games than any other coach in UNM history after his first two seasons (44), raced on the floor and starting screaming at Boylen and the officials. The coaches, who were both in the Big Ten at the same time a couple of years ago — Alford as head coach of Iowa and Boylen as an assistant at Michigan State — had to be separated while giving “let’s go at it” words and hand signals to each other.
“Jimmy’s from the Big Ten, I’m from the Big Ten,” Alford said. “We had great wars when we were at Michigan State and Iowa. We’ve brought that flavor to the Mountain West. …
“We’re fine,” he continued of his relationship with Boylen. “We talked after the game about it. He’s competitive, I’m competitive, we’re all trying to win a league championship. I think he’s out on the floor, he thinks I’m on the floor. He thinks I’m nuts, I think he’s nuts. That’s being competitive. It’s all part of the game and it’s fun. His staff’s holding him back, my staff’s holding me back.”
Boylen said he ran on the floor because he was trying to get a timeout and it was so loud the officials couldn’t hear him.
“What was I going to do?” Boylen said. “I’m trying to call time out, the place is going nuts — you can’t hear yourself in there. I was trying to get a time out. We both got a bench warning. It’s nothing personal. We’re both in the same spot, trying to win games and trying to build programs. We’re in the same damn spot.”
That they are. Literally, when it comes to the MWC standings.
They were also close to being in the same spot during Tuesday’s game when the Utes cut the count to 48-47 with 12 minutes left. But the Lobos then went on a 12-0 tear that nearly blew the roof off the building ahead of schedule.
Junior Roman Martinez, who had 13 points, seven rebounds and countless savvy plays at crucial times, hit a jumper right out of a Lobo timeout. Danridge followed with a bank shot and a three-point play — the latter being set up by a Martinez steal. A Toppert free throw, a sweet up-and-under move by Faris and another jumper by Danridge made it 60-47 with eight minutes remaining.
“Coach Alford, he’s the best coach I’ve ever been around,” Faris said of Alford’s tirade that kick-started his team. “He knows how to motivate us.”
STAR OF THE GAME
Senior Tony Danridge went 8-of-15 and scored a careerhigh 29 points in his final home game.
After the Utes cut a 13-point deficit to 66-61 with two minutes left, UNM’s Roman Martinez missed a long 3-pointer. But the junior raced in for the rebound and was fouled. His free throw squelched the Utah run.
QUALITY, NO QUANTITY
The Utes made the most of their field goal attempts, hitting 56.4 percent for the game. Problem is, they took just 39 (hitting 22). UNM was 24-of-57 (42.1 percent)