ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Lobo Hoops Victory Ends 15-Year Title Drought
LARAMIE, Wyo. – Hey Lobo fans! Welcome to Title Town!
For the first time in the 10-year history of the Mountain West Conference – and for the first time in any league since 1994 – the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team owns a share of the regular-season conference championship.
And the NCAA Tournament selection committee had better be paying attention.
In a game that lived up to all the hype of March Madness, the Lobos (21-10, 12-4) pulled out a scintillating 74-73 win against Wyoming (18-12, 7-9) on Saturday afternoon.
The victory gives UNM a share of the MWC crown with Utah (12-4), which beat TCU on Saturday, and Brigham Young (12-4), which caused a three-way deadlock with a victory at night over Air Force (0-16).
“This is amazing, just an amazing feeling,” said UNM junior Roman Martinez, who had five huge 3s and 15 points. “To think where we came from having a 3-4 record, and where we are now. It’s really something special.”
So, too, was this game.
There were nine ties and nine lead changes in the second half alone.
The last of those came when Lobo senior Chad Toppert – who was 0-for-7 to that point, all from 3-point range – used a head fake, dribbled and made a 15-foot jumper with 1:22 remaining for the game’s final points.
“I couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean tonight,” said Toppert, who finished with just the two points. “I’m just thankful my teammates have so much confidence in me, even when things aren’t falling for me. I just tried to stay ready, and I was confident when the opportunity came.”
The contest was far from over. The Lobo defense faced two more Wyoming possessions, and both after Martinez and starting senior post Daniel Faris had fouled out. On the first possession, the Cowboys’ Tyson Johnson missed a jumper and UNM freshman Will Brown grabbed the rebound.
But the Lobos didn’t take advantage as Tony Danridge – who had yet another remarkable outing otherwise – traveled with 35.4 seconds remaining.
The Cowboys called a timeout to set up a final surge, and both coaches – Wyoming’s Heath Schroyer and UNM’s Steve Alford – smiled at each other and laughed as the teams broke their respective huddles.
“It was such a hard-fought game, and I think we both knew it was going to come down to who made a play, and if the ball would go in or not,” Schroyer said.
“Everything came down to one shot, and we both knew it,” Alford said
And both coaches, as well as all 7,412 fans in Laramie’s Arena-Auditorium, knew who would take it.
Senior guard Brandon Ewing, playing the final regular-season game of his stellar four-year career, held the ball as the clocked ticked down.
Finally, with about 10 seconds left, Ewing got the Cowboys into their offense. After a pair of passes, the ball came back to Ewing, who drove to the hole.
He had already scored 16 points, and had been to the line 13 times, making 11. And that’s how he would finish.
This time there was no foul, and Ewing’s awkward right-handed layup from the left side bounced off the front of the rim.
“I had talked to them about the (Pittsburgh) Steelers, and just getting nasty defensively,” said Alford, who won the first regular-season title in his 14 years as a Division I head coach. “We had to get that stop. One of the best players in school history goes to the rim, and I thought we did a good job of contesting him. And the big thing is the rebound; we had to get that rebound.”
UNM’s Jonathan Wills did just that with one second remaining. The celebration was under way.
The victory was UNM’s 14th on the road in the past two seasons, which is the most in a two-year stretch in school history.
The Lobos won despite five 3s and 17 points from Wyoming’s Sean Ogirri – who set a league record for most treys in a season (103) – and despite going just 7-of-10 from the foul line while the Cowboys were 25-of-32 (78.1 percent).
But that wasn’t enough for Wyoming to offset Danridge.
The 6-foot-5 senior wing scored a career-high 29 points for the second straight game, having done so in the Lobos’ 77-71 triumph against Utah on Tuesday in the Pit.
On Saturday, Danridge was 14-of-20 from the floor with four rebounds and three assists.
“Just a stud, a flat-out stud,” Schroyer said of Danridge. “What else can you say about the guy?”
Danridge, who is a strong candidate for MWC Player of the Year, didn’t say much more, either.
“I was just flowing in the offense,” said the soft-spoken senior. “I was getting good screens and my teammates were giving me good shots.”
Speaking of shots, that’s what the Cowboys and Lobos will get against each other this week. Another shot.
With BYU’s win Saturday night, the Lobos finished as the third seed after the MWC’s tiebreaker. They’ll again play the sixth-seeded Pokes on Thursday in the league tournament quarterfinals.
“That’s the emotional toughness right there,” Alford said. “That’s hard on them and I know it’s hard on us to play back-to-back. But we’re not going to worry about it for a while.
“We’re going to enjoy the bus trip to Denver and enjoy (Saturday night) in Denver. And we’ll probably enjoy it on Sunday, too. We’ll start working towards the conference tournament on Monday, but I want our guys to enjoy this for a while.”
The Lobos (No. 3 seed) will meet Wyoming (6) again Thursday at 9:30 p.m. in the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nev., in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament. Other games that day include:
n BYU (1) vs. winner of Wednesday’s pigtail game (No. 8 CSUNo. 9 Air Force, 1 p.m.
n San Diego State (4) vs. UNLV (5), 3:30 p.m.
n Utah (2) vs. TCU (7), 7 p.m.
All games are listed in MDT and all will be broadcast on the mtn.