And once again, the final result couldn’t be prettier for the Lobos, who survived a scrappy Cowboys effort for a 72-69 overtime win in front of 4,711 fans in the Arena-Auditorium for UNM’s seventh-consecutive win over Wyoming.
“I haven’t found a team that doesn’t have an ugly game here,” UNM junior center Alex Kirk said. “It’s a tough place to play. It’s just a different environment and you have to create your own energy.”
Despite playing 40 minutes at more than 7,200 feet above sea level, Kirk had enough energy left to rise up and block a Riley Grabau layup attempt with 14 seconds left in overtime that would have given the Cowboys the lead. Then sophomore Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas iced the game for UNM with a pair of free throws two seconds later, his sixth and seventh points in the overtime.
“Just prayer,” Thomas said when asked what was going through his mind when he stepped to the free-throw line for the clinching free throws. “Just prayer. I knew we needed them.”
Thomas opened that overtime period with a 3-pointer from the corner to put UNM up 67-64 with 3:31 remaining.
The score remained there until UNM freshman Cullen Neal went to the free-throw line with 1:30 remaining.
After the freshman sank his first free throw to give the Lobos a four-point lead, he turned to the boisterous Wyoming student section and blew a kiss, something he was known to do on occasion during his standout prep career in Albuquerque at Eldorado High.
Game official Larry Spaulding called Neal for a technical foul for the gesture. It was a kiss that nearly blew the game for the Lobos. Grabau sank both technical free throws and then Neal missed his second foul shot, turning a four-point, two-possession UNM lead into a 68-66 Lobos advantage.
“A player made a bad decision,” Lobo head coach Craig Neal said of his son’s technical foul. “A player made a bad decision and hopefully he’ll learn from it. … (Spaulding) said he blew a kiss. I’ll have to deal with that and I’ll deal with it in the right way, but a player made a bad mistake and hopefully he’ll learn from it.”
Thomas’ four free throws in the final 1:07 and Kirk’s block were enough for the Lobos to overcome a Grabau 3-pointer and escape with a win.
“I’m really proud of how tough our guys were — really resilient,” coach Neal said. “… I thought Wyoming guarded us as well as anybody guarded us all year.”
UNM’s Big Three — Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams — all scored below their season averages. Bairstow had a team-high 15 points, Kirk had 12 to go along with eight rebounds and four blocks, and Williams scored 10.
“I thought we did as good a job as anyone in the country on their big three,” Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt, a former UNM assistant, said. “But their three men (Deshawn Delaney and Thomas), who had really been struggling from (three-point range), were both 2-for-2 from three tonight, and at big moments that hurt us.”
Delaney scored eight points and, like Thomas, had two 3’s.
Grabau led Wyoming with 24 points, including four 3-pointers, and was 10-of-10 from the free-throw line. Larry Nance Jr. scored nine points.
RIMGATE?: At halftime, someone on the Lobos bench saw a Wyoming game management employee adjusting the height of the rim on the basket UNM would be shooting at for the rest of the game. The Lobos bench asked Spaulding to measure the rim after the 7-foot Kirk reached up unsuccessfully to grab the net, something he normally can do with ease.
Arena officials measured the rim. UNM sports information director Frank Mercogliano tweeted that it measured 3 inches higher than the regulation 10 feet. Wyoming sports information directors countered that it was 1 inch too high.
It was not determined whether Wyoming shot at a basket that was too high in the first half, or whether the rim was raised at halftime. No further action was taken after the rim was lowered back to regulation height.
Craig Neal after the game declined to comment about the matter.