BOISE, Idaho — Leon Rice couldn’t watch.
The Boise State head coach, whose Broncos had lost three-straight heartbreaking games in the closing moments and had never tasted victory against the New Mexico Lobos since joining the Mountain West Conference, stopped his usual sideline pacing for the final 14 seconds of Wednesday night’s game and took a seat on the bench.
While Rice sat with his team nursing a one-point lead, Kendall Williams moved the ball up the court for the Lobos, drove to the rim and kicked it out to guard Hugh Greenwood. The 6-foot-3 guard pump-faked, then fired a high arching jump shot that rimmed out, giving the Broncos a 71-70 win over the Lobos in front of 6,329 frenzied fans in Taco Bell Arena.
“We’ve had our hearts ripped out the last three games,” Rice said. “… We needed it for our guys.”
The Lobos (18-5, 9-2 MWC) needed it, too. Playing a night after No. 5 San Diego State stumbled on the road in a loss to Wyoming, a Lobos win would have put the two-time defending league champion in a first place tie with the nationally ranked Aztecs.
“Yeah, I talked to them about we’re 9-1 and can go 10-1 and tie for first place,” UNM head coach Craig Neal said. “That’s part of the process. It’s late in the year when that’s what matters. We just let one slip away here and we’ll have to bounce back and play well on Saturday” at home vs. Nevada.
Four Broncos (16-9, 6-6) scored in double figures, led by 18 from junior Anthony Drmic, a former roommate of Greenwood’s at the Australian Institute of Sport. But it was Drmic’s defense on Greenwood’s would-be game-winner in the closing seconds that made the difference.
After Derrick Marks hit two free throws to put BSU up 71-70 with 14 seconds remaining, Neal decided to let his veteran-led squad do its thing without calling a timeout — not giving his team an opportunity to draw up a play, but more importantly for Neal not giving Boise State an opportunity to set up its defense, either.
“I knew he (Williams) was going to pass it to Hughie, and I closed really hard,” Drmic said. “I knew he (Greenwood) was going to fake. I jumped and as soon as I landed, I jumped again. I think I got my hand in there a little bit and he missed it.”
Asked specifically if he was the reason Greenwood missed, Drmic said with a smile, “I’ll claim it.”
Drmic, who hadn’t scored more than 10 points in his previous five meetings against his friendly rival Greenwood, hit three of Boise State’s 11 3-pointers in the win.
It was the four 3-pointers from reserve guard/forward Thomas Bropleh, including a long, desperation trey banked in high off the glass as the shot clock buzzer sounded with 8:09 remaining, that seemed to indicate Wednesday could be the Broncos’ night.
“Bropleh came in and hit a couple of big shots,” UNM senior forward Cameron Bairstow said. “They were decently contested for how good of a shooter he is, and he made the shots. He made the bank over Alex, which is always tough in that position.”
Williams had a game-high 22 for the Lobos.
The 6-9 Bairstow and 7-foot Alex Kirk, as they’ve often done to Boise State, dominated early inside for UNM. The pair finished with a combined 33 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots, but only four of those points came in the final 15 minutes after two Kirk free throws opened up an 11-point (52-41) UNM lead.
“They trapped us in the second half and made it hard on Cam and we missed some shots, but I thought our guys played hard,” Neal said.
Said Bropleh, “We just started to throw different looks at them. We had four guards on the floor and they have two giants … so we just threw different looks at them and over the course of the second half, it worked.”
Boise State center Ryan Watkins had a double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds), and the Broncos out-rebounded UNM 35-25, including 12 offensive rebounds leading to 10 second-chance points.
NEW MEXICO (18-5, 9-2)
Greenwood 1-2 2-4 4, K. Williams 7-14 6-10 22, Delaney 3-3 0-0 9, Bairstow 6-9 8-9 20, Kirk 5-9 2-2 13, Thomas 0-2 0-0 0, Edwards 0-0 0-0 0, Aget 0-0 0-0 0, Neal 0-2 2-2 2, Banyard 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 22-43 20-27 70.
BOISE ST. (16-9, 6-6)
Watkins 5-6 2-3 12, Thompson 0-7 0-0 0, Marks 1-9 8-8 11, Drmic 6-11 3-4 18, Duncan 2-4 0-0 6, Bropleh 5-12 0-0 14, Hanstad 0-0 0-0 0, Elorriaga 0-0 0-0 0, Hadziomerovic 1-3 1-2 3, Trent 3-6 0-0 7, Ness 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-58 14-17 71.
Halftime: New Mexico 42-35. 3-Point Goals: New Mexico 6-11 (Delaney 3-3, K. Williams 2-4, Kirk 1-2, Neal 0-1, Thomas 0-1), Boise St. 11-25 (Bropleh 4-10, Drmic 3-4, Duncan 2-4, Trent 1-2, Marks 1-4, Thompson 0-1). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: New Mexico 25 (Kirk 9), Boise St. 35 (Watkins 11). Assists: New Mexico 9 (Delaney 4), Boise St. 15 (Marks 8). Total Fouls: New Mexico 18, Boise St. 23. A: 6,329.