ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Wherever they go, however far they wind up going, the New Mexico Lobos prefer to take The Bus.
Dairese Gary rarely lets them down, and almost always picks them up.
Gary, nicknamed “Little Bus” because of a strong facial and physical resemblance to former NFL running back Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, is no Jimmer Fredette. He’s not likely to score 40-plus points in back-to-back games, make the front sports page of USA Today or banter with the talking heads on SportsCenter.
Yet, he’s no less central to everything the Lobos do on the basketball court.
“He means everything to us,” Lobo freshman Tony Snell said after UNM’s thrilling 86-77 upset of Fredette and the ninth-ranked Brigham Young Cougars.
When folks around the country read the Top 25 game summaries in their newspapers this morning – people still do that, right? – they’ll see that Fredette, the nation’s leading scorer, improved his average with 32 points against the Lobos.
If there’s a BYU-New Mexico game story in that newspaper, it likely will lead with Snell’s 16 second-half points that lifted the Lobos from a 13-point deficit to a nine-point victory.
Those folks may or may not notice that Gary, New Mexico’s senior point guard, achieved a double-double the hard way: 14 points and 10 assists.
“In the end, it’s that one guy again, Dairese Gary,” UNM coach Steve Alford said. “He plays all 40 minutes, he’s guarding the best player (Fredette) on the other team.
“This is what Dairese has done his entire career, and we’re seeing a very special player come into the last half of his (final season).”
If Fredette is college basketball’s Superman, you could make a case that Gary is his Kryptonite. The Lobos (15-7 overall, 3-4 in Mountain West Conference play) swept the Cougars (20-2, 6-1) last season and now might have swept them out of the national top 10.
Is Gary a better player than Fredette? No, though I’m not sure the reverse is true, either; they both get their teams where they need to go, but they represent different modes of transportation.
Did Gary get the better of Fredette on Saturday, since the Lobos brought Jimmer down from Mount Olympus and made him look human most of the afternoon? Perhaps, but it’s a 10-man game at all times and rarely that simple.
Is Gary every scintilla and millimeter as important to the Lobos as Fredette is to the Cougars? Yes, absolutely.
Here’s how crucial Gary was to New Mexico on Saturday: in the game’s final 14 1/2 minutes, as the Lobos outscored BYU 46-24, Gary had nine points and six assists.
The lone UNM senior’s shoulders were as broad figuratively as they are physically.
“Talking to (Alford), when we needed big plays or just needed a good possession, he told me that’s my time,” Gary said. “I’m the point guard, the senior on the team; I should have the ball in my hands down the stretch.
“… I just wanted the ball and made the right play.”
Make that plural – the right plays – made by a singular player.
Back-to-back baskets by Gary – a driving layup and a 3-pointer – cut the BYU lead to just five points with 12:58 left. A layup by sophomore Chad Adams, assisted by Gary, cut the Cougars’ margin to three.
A 3-pointer by freshman guard Kendall Williams, assisted by Gary, tied the score at 57 with 9:02 remaining.
Then, with UNM protecting a lead in the final two minutes, Gary assisted on a Snell 3, scored on a layup and hit a pair of free throws.
It may not be a fair comparison, given the different roles they play, but Fredette was far less effective down the stretch. After giving the Cougars a 67-62 lead with a 3-pointer at the 6:30 mark, he was 1-of-6 thereafter.
Fredette may not think of Gary as his nemesis, but he’s acutely aware of him.
“Dairese Gary is a tough-minded kid, and he’s gonna battle,” Fredette said.
This season, Alford has battled inexperience and fragile confidence within his predominantly young roster. Saturday, in the decisive stretch, UNM stared down the nation’s No. 9 team and its hottest player – a startling change from a team that began MWC play with a 1-4 mark.
You can’t get change on a lot of buses, but on this one you can.