ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It started with an assist from four-year walk-on Chris Perez to four-year starter Kendall Williams for a 3-pointer on the opening possession.
It ended with a Perez shot-fake in the lane, spin move and layup for the final basket.
In between, No. 21 University of New Mexico’s All-America candidate senior power forward Cameron Bairstow scored 21 points, and the Lobos thoroughly dominated the Air Force Falcons, 80-52, in the final home game of the season in front of a sold-out Pit crowd of 15,411.
Senior Night was everything the Lobos had hoped for.
But it wasn’t the end.
“This isn’t goodbye,” first-year head coach Craig Neal said in an emotional postgame ceremony honoring the team’s three senior players and two senior team managers. “This is good luck for a lot more games to play this season.”
Wednesday’s win, coupled with San Diego State’s late win Wednesday over UNLV, means the two-time defending champion Lobos (24-5, 15-2 Mountain West) will play the Aztecs (26-3, 15-2) on Saturday night in San Diego for the outright Mountain West Conference championship.
And if you ask Williams, who by his standards had a modest 13 points, three assists and two steals stat line, Saturday night’s championship showdown is exactly the scenario he wanted for a Lobos team that entered the season with a slogan of “Unfinished Business” after an early NCAA Tournament exit last March.
“We’re going to go to San Diego (on Saturday night) and win there,” said Williams during a very showman-like postgame speech to fans that ended with him pulling a Sharpie out of his shorts, signing his game-worn high-tops and tossing them into the crowd.
“We’re going to go to Vegas (next week) and we’re going to 3-peat there (as Mountain West Tournament champion). And people want to talk about unfinished business. That’s real to us. We came back because unfinished business is real.”
In a calmer, less pep rally-like postgame setting, Williams didn’t back down when addressing reporters. He said he was hoping all along that SDSU, a team UNM dominated in the Pit 58-44 on Feb. 22, would beat UNLV to set up the outright title showdown instead of a game for a possible shared crown, which the two schools did in 2012.
Neal said his team didn’t speak a word about SDSU while preparing for Air Force, adding he’s confident Wednesday’s celebratory mood during their Senior Night blowout won’t last long.
“I don’t think I have to motivate them or give them a Knute Rockne speech,” Neal said. “I think our guys will be ready.”
They certainly were Wednesday.
UNM held Air Force (11-17, 5-12) to 34.5 percent shooting and forced 17 turnovers, a season-high for a UNM opponent. UNM’s 7-foot center Alex Kirk had all four of his blocks in the first half, setting the tone as the Lobos held AFA to 20 points on 27.6 percent shooting and a dreadful .556 points per possession.
“In this environment on Senior Night,” Air Force head coach Dave Pilipovich said, “we knew it was going to be a buzz saw.”
Kirk and Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas had 10 points apiece to join Bairstow and Williams as double-digit scorers.
Air Force got 11 points apiece from Tre’ Coggins and Justin Hammonds.
PEREZ POWER: The Lobos are now 15-0 when Perez plays. The senior from California got his first career start Wednesday, played a career-high six minutes and tied career highs in points (2) and assists (1). The 6-foot senior wants to teach and coach high school basketball after his college days are over.
“If you want a damn good high school basketball coach,” Neal told the Pit crowd, “you better hire Chris Perez.”
MVP: Chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” showered down on Bairstow throughout the game and as he addressed fans in the postgame ceremony. During them, Williams, the 2013 Mountain West Player of the Year, was emphatically pumping his fist.
“I’ll concede any award to a deserving teammate,” Williams said after the game, adding Bairstow is the obvious choice for the league’s top player.
INJURIES: Sophomore guard Arthur Edwards missed Wednesday’s game due to illness, and Deshawn Delaney was limited to 19 minutes with a toe injury on his right foot that has nagged him since a Feb. 5 win over Wyoming. He still had eight points, nine rebounds and two steals.