FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The No. 16 New Mexico Lobos knew that when they flew back to Albuquerque after their Saturday tilt with league championship hopeful No. 22 Colorado State, they’d still have at least a share of first place in the Mountain West.
That was the recipe that spelled disaster when UNM came out lethargic in road games at then-title hopefuls San Diego State (a 55-34 Lobos loss Jan. 26) and UNLV (a 64-55 Lobos loss Feb. 9).
In both cases, UNM head coach Steve Alford chalked up the losses to playing desperate teams with their backs against the wall.
More privately, the performances ate at the Lobos, who acknowledged this past week that they couldn’t let another such opportunity slip by.
So when they knocked off CSU 91-82 on Saturday afternoon to improve to 23-4 overall and 10-2 in the Mountain West, they took a commanding two-game lead over the Rams (21-6, 8-4 MWC) with only four games remaining in the regular season.
Now they readily acknowledge they’re in a good position to defend last year’s regular-season co-championship. No other league team has fewer than five league losses.
“After this one, you’ve got to start to taste it,” said Kendall Williams, whose 46-point performance was the primary reason the Lobos took that two-game lead in the standings.
UNM’s four remaining games include the next two at home (San Diego State on Wednesday, Wyoming on Saturday) and the last two on the road (March 6 at Nevada, March 9 at Air Force).
CSU’s four remaining games are vs. Fresno State, at Boise State, at Wyoming and vs. Nevada.
Asked whether Saturday’s win allows the team to start thinking about NCAA Tournament seeding possibilities, Alford said no. But he did acknowledge the season-long goal for a regular-season title feels much closer.
“We weren’t picked to win it,” Alford reminded reporters, as he often does. “We’ve got a two-game lead now, with four to play, and we like our position.”
That doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. San Diego State — the team picked by most in the preseason to win the Mountain West, that shared the regular-season title with UNM last year, that knocked off UNM in the Pit last year and held UNM to a shot clock-era low 34 points less than a month ago — is next.
“At the end of the day, they’re our big-time rival,” said Williams, “and they’re coming to the Pit. They like to win in there, and they’ve won in there. So we need to hold down home court. If we handle business this week, then we can really feel confidence in our ability to get this ring.”
Alford agreed that while the Lobos are happy with where they are after the CSU win, the job isn’t done, yet.
“We’ve got to close it out,” Alford said.
— This article appeared on page D2 of the Albuquerque Journal