RENO, Nev. — After New Mexico’s Tony Snell drained an 20-foot jumper with 4:49 remaining in Wednesday night’s 75-62 win over Nevada, teammate Kendall Williams turned to his bench and yelled “Game over!”
The Lobos, who wrapped up the Mountain West championship and tournament’s No. 1 seed and have little left to play for in the final week of the regular season, played like anything but a team that thinks things are over.
“We knew the pressure was off,” Alford said, “but I was concerned what our effort, what our demeanor, what our concentration would be. That’s what I told them in the locker room was how pleased I was of them because they came out focused. … We gave great effort all night. We did what we’ve done all year, we just eventually wore a team down and in the last eight minutes, you could tell.”
Snell scored 25 points for the Lobos (26-4, 13-2 MWC) and big men Cameron Bairstow (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Alex Kirk (11 points, 10 rebounds) each posted double-doubles as UNM dominated Nevada (12-17, 3-12) down the stretch. The Lobos used a 17-0 scoring run at one point and closed the game on a 28-12 run to ruin the Wolf Pack’s senior night celebration.
“I think experience has a lot to do with it with guys being through this before,” Bairstow said of UNM’s finish. “It’s been a trend all year.”
Alford agreed with his junior power forward who posted his first career double-double.
“The last 10 minutes, it’s almost like the team said that’s enough and they cranked up the defense,” Alford said. “We made it really hard on them the last 10 minutes and then Cam and Alex just dominated the paint at both ends.”
A Malik Story 3-pointer put Nevada up 50-47 with 12:20 left and then led 52-51 before Bairstow scored the Lobos next eight points followed by three more for Kirk. Between the 7:49 mark and the 3:12 mark of the second half, UNM outscored Nevada 17-0 to push the lead to 72-56.
And throughout that stretch, the Lobos looked as relaxed and seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as they have been all season.
“We had a lot more fun,” said Snell. “We’re back to back champs and we just feel like we need to go out there and have fun and play the game, but we still have to get wins and we still have to play hard, but we can just have fun now.”
He added, “Our mindset is just finish what we started.”
In addition to his 25 points on 8-of-11 shooting, Snell got switched to guard Story at about the 10-minute mark of the second half. Story matched Snell’s 25 points, but scored just three in the final 10 minutes with Snell guarding him.
Williams was the fourth Lobo to score in double figures with 10 points, five assists and three steals while UNM shot 50 percent (27-of-54) from the field in the game.
Story was Nevada’s only player in double figures.
The question for UNM coming into the game was whether Alford would rest his starters or try to play for NCAA seeding. He accomplished both Wednesday, playing freshmen Cleveland ‘Pancake’ Thomas (4), Nick Banyard (4) and Kory Alford (5) 13 total minutes in the first half, a high for freshman in the first half this season.
But in the second half, when the game was still in question, the thought of having a loss to a team with an RPI ranking of 167, made Alford go for the win with his starters down the stretch.
It’s an approach he plans to take Saturday in the regular season finale at Air Force as well.
“We’ll be driven because we haven’t lost to Air Force (since Alford has been coach),” Alford said. “We ruined one senior night. The plan on this road trip was to do that twice.”
BIRTHDAY BOY: Hugh Greenwood celebrated his 21st birthday Wednesday in Reno. Each of UNM’s five starters is 21 and over, an oddity in college basketball for a team without a senior starter.
26 WINS: The Lobos’ 26th win on Wednesday marks just the fifth time in program history they’ve had 26 wins in a season.
DOUBLE THE PLEASURE: The last time UNM had two players with double-doubles like Kirk and Bairstow had on Wednesday was on Feb. 23, 2010, at Colorado State when Roman Martinez (17 points, 12 rebounds) and Darington Hobson (15, 10) accomplished the feat.