Characteristic defensive effort leads to victory
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Basketball beauty, Steve Alford has said time and again this season as his team has struggled through poor-shooting games, is in the eye of the beholder.
Wednesday night, the Mountain West Conference coach of the year said he couldn’t think of anything prettier than a final scoreboard that read New Mexico 59, Wyoming 46 in the Mountain West tournament quarterfinals.
“In March, when you win by 13 points, to me it’s pretty,” Alford said. “We may not have shot the ball that well, but we’ve had a lot of games this year where we haven’t shot the ball well. The key and identity to this basketball team — I think things change from year to year — but our identity has always been on the defensive end.”
The No. 15 Lobos (27-5) got 15 points from Tony Snell, 14 from forward Cameron Bairstow and never trailed Wednesday. But they also shot just 40.5 percent in the game (17-of-42 from the field) and had one stretch of 12 minutes, 1 second without making a basket. (They did hit six free throws in that stretch.)
The offense wasn’t pretty, but when you defend like the Lobos did on Wednesday night, it doesn’t have to be.
UNM held the Cowboys (18-13) to 32 percent shooting (16 of 50) and closed out the game on an 11-4 scoring run after Wyoming’s Josh Adams hit a basket to cut the UNM lead to 48-42 with 7:45 left in the second half.
Cowboys senior star Leonard Washington, a third team All-Mountain West selection, fouled out with just 6 points on 3-of-7 shooting in 23 minutes. In three games against the Lobos this season, Washington averaged just 5.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, down from his overall season averages of 13.2 points and 8.6 rebounds.
“We did a great job of getting him in foul trouble,” Bairstow said. “I think that really affected him.”
Wyoming got 14 points apiece from forward Larry Nance Jr. and guard Derrious Gilmore.
Wyoming head coach Larry Shyatt, the former UNM assistant coach from the 1980s, said he didn’t want to say what he was really thinking about a free throw disparity ithat saw his Cowboys take 16 fewer attempts from the charity stripe (13) than did the Lobos (29).
After saying how proud he was of his team playing hurt, he added, “The other things I can’t say because my wife would kill me and the commissioner (Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson) would be pissed, too.”
When asked by the Journal if the free throw discrepancy was the byproduct of UNM playing more of an attacking style of offense while his Cowboys slowed the game down, often running a deliberate weave offense five feet beyond the three-point arc before settling for shots late in the shot clock, Shyatt paused before responding.
“I thought they created a lot by attacking,” he said, but would not address whether Wyoming’s offensive game plan was conducive to drawing fouls.
UNM closed the first half with as good a closing two minutes of defense as the Lobos have had all season.
Chad Adams blocked a Derek Cooke Jr. dunk attempt out of bounds with 2:05 remaining in the half. Two possessions later, Bairstow blocked a Josh Adams jumper out of bounds with 27.4 seconds remaining. After the ensuing Wyoming inbounds, Kendall Williams blocked a Derrious Gilmore jumper with 20 seconds left in the half.
UNM led 34-24 at halftime and Snell had scored 11 of his game-high 15 in the first 20 minutes.
An estimated 5,000 UNM fans in attendance stayed loud throughout the game — something Shyatt wasn’t pleased with.
“I will tell you this, I felt like I was in the Pit, and I was really disappointed,” Shyatt said.
Alford said he was as happy as ever with the fan base.
“I’ve said it so many times,” Alford said. “It’s a blessing and honor to be the head coach of New Mexico. There’s a lot of reasons for that. The top of that list has always been our fan base.”
With the UNM win, the Lobos advance to Friday night’s semifinal.
Wyoming, which was 14-0 in non-conference games but went just 5-13 against Mountain West teams this season, is hopeful for a postseason invitation to one of the secondary postseason events starting next week.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal