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Challenging Week Ahead for Lobos

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New Mexico faces ranked San Diego State, UNLV this week

Just one game into league play, and the New Mexico men’s basketball team already faces an enormous week. Probably a pivotal week – the type of week the program hasn’t witnessed in nearly two decades.

The Lobos (15-2), who smacked Wyoming 72-62 in Laramie on Saturday in their Mountain West Conference opener, are riding a 13-game winning streak. But this week, that rapid run will get a big-time challenge.

Twice.

Wednesday
San Diego State at UNM, 8 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: KKOB-AM (770)

New Mexico will do something it hasn’t done since the 1992-93 season: play back-to-back nationally ranked conference foes.

On Wednesday, the Lobos play host to 22nd-ranked San Diego State (15-2, 1-0). On Saturday, they visit 12th-ranked UNLV (16-3, 0-1).

“We know this will be a very challenging week,” Lobo coach Steve Alford said, “and we are looking forward to the opportunities.”

This past Saturday, the Aztecs edged the Rebels 69-67 at home in the MWC opener for those teams. Both are certain to be ranked again when the new polls come out today after the thrilling affair gained national attention.

The last time the Lobos faced such a week came in March of 1993 when ninth-ranked Utah and 21st-ranked Brigham Young visited the Pit in back-to-back games in the Western Athletic Conference. The Lobos won both and eventually won the league tournament title and an NCAA Tournament berth.

That year’s UNM team, coincidentally, also played back-to-back ranked teams during the nonconference season with consecutive road games at 12th-ranked Arizona and No. 25 New Mexico State.

Only two times since that season have the Lobos played back-to-back games against ranked foes, but neither came in league play. In the 1994-95 season, the Lobos played two in a row against nationally ranked NMSU and in the 2004-05 season they won the MWC tournament title with a victory against 15th-ranked Utah, then lost to 22nd-ranked Villanova in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

LIFE’S A BENCH: The deep Lobos got a huge lift from their bench on Saturday in Laramie. UNM’s reserves outscored Wyoming’s 22-4 – and that doesn’t include junior point guard Jamal Fenton, who got the starting nod when freshman Hugh Greenwood missed his second straight game with an ankle injury. Fenton had 13 points and two assists.

“Our bench was just terrific, and we thought that could be a key for us coming into league play,” Alford said. “I don’t know too many benches that are as good as our bench, and I thought that was a huge key for us (Saturday).”

Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt, in his first year back with the Cowboys after coaching at Clemson and Florida the past 12 years – and who was an assistant at Providence before – says he thinks the Lobos “are a good team. It’s hard for me to judge the league. I’ve been in the SEC, the ACC and the Big East for a long time, and you’re dealing with three or four pros on a team at a time.

“But they’re good. I would say the best thing about them, is the coaching staff has their attention. They have guys who didn’t guard who were guarding. They have as deep a team, probably, as the west has. Their subs can dominate a game offensively, and play well defensively. That’s a good feeling for a coach.”

SHOOTING ON THE RANGE: The Lobos held the Cowboys to 42.3 percent from the field (22-52) and 31.6 percent (6-19) from 3-point range, while shooting a blazing 52.3 percent (23-44) and 57.1 percent (8-14) themselves, respectively. UNM also went 18-for-22 (81.8 percent) from the foul line while the Pokes shot 92.3 percent, but only got to the line 13 times (making 12).

The Lobos led 34-30 at halftime but ran away midway through the second half.

“We just challenged our guys,” Alford said, when asked if he made any halftime adjustments. “I thought we had a letdown in the final two minutes of the first half. It was a tight game but we had the lead most of the way. We did a lot of good things. We got the free throw line a lot in the second half, and we took good shots.”

The Lobos had 15 turnovers, but none during a key 6 1/2-minute stretch when they ran pushed a 46-44 lead to 61-46 and put the game away.

“The coaches got us and told us to stop leaving our feet on passes,” Fenton said. “Wyoming’s a good taking-charge team, they do a good job of taking charges. As soon as we quit leaving our feet we were good after that.”

GREENWOOD UPDATE: Alford says he thinks Greenwood, who had started 13 straight games prior to the ankle injury, will be able to play on Wednesday.

“Hugh’s day-to-day getting better every day,” Alford said of Greenwood, who practiced with the team every day since last Wednesday. “We didn’t want to risk it (Saturday).”

CAN THE DOUBLE-A BECOME A-1 AGAIN? Wyoming’s 15,028-seat Arena-Auditorium used to be one of the most intimidating venues in the country, but had been as quiet as one of the nearby snow drifts for much of the past decade. There were 6,955 on hand – most very lively – for Saturday’s game.

Shyatt says he’s hoping his squad will win over the Pokes folks, but he knows it will take some time.

“I said nine months ago when we came, ‘if we can play aggressively, a lot. If we can play disciplined, some. And we can play unselfish all the time, maybe we can play back into the hearts of the fans.’ Time will tell.”
— This article appeared on page B1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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