Chris Perez finished what he started Wednesday night.
The same goes for the guys he came in with, and that’s a major reason the University of New Mexico men’s basketball program is headed for its third straight NCAA Tournament berth.
Nothing beats a solid foundation.
The New Mexico Lobos (and the Air Force Falcons) couldn’t have scripted it much better on Senior Night at The Pit.
After the 21st-ranked Lobos had dispatched the Falcons, 80-52, UNM honored its three departing seniors: guard Kendall Williams, forward Cameron Bairstow, and Perez, a walk-on guard.
They’re a threesome worth honoring. Williams is the reigning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year; Bairstow is his likely successor. Fittingly, they led the Lobos Wednesday with 13 and 21 points, respectively.
Perez is, well, the wind beneath their wings. He got his first career start Wednesday – playing 52 seconds before being pulled in favor of Deshawn Delaney – then returned and scored to tumultuous cheers on a lovely up-and-under move with 42 seconds left in the game.
Those three, however, comprise less than half of the group that first donned UNM game jerseys in the fall of 2010, brought here by current head coach Craig Neal and former head coach Steve Alford.
Joining them were: post player Drew Gordon, a transfer from UCLA; Tony Snell, an athletic guard from California; Emmanuel Negedu, a transfer forward from Nigeria by way of Tennessee; and Alex Kirk, a 7-foot center from Los Alamos.
As classes go, that was a keeper.
There were no Curtis Dennises or Nate Garths, talented-enough kids who never quite found their niche.
There was no Will Brown, booted from the program for academic deficiencies, no Isaiah Rusher, turned loose before ever playing a game because he didn’t play well with others. No Jarion Henry, who signed a letter of intent but never made it to campus.
“I think it’s one of the best classes that ever came through here,” Neal told the Pit crowd.
This is a group that stayed the course.
Well, OK. Snell left for the NBA after three seasons. He was a first-round draft choice. He’s making about $1.4 million this season. Given the same option, what would you do?
Gordon had a fine two-year career, leading UNM to an NCAA Tournament berth in 2012. He’s now playing professionally overseas.
Kirk played as a freshman in 2010-11, then sat out 2011-12 after back surgery. He has one more season of eligibility.
Negedu played only 10 games as a Lobo before a heart condition ended his career. One might call him the forgotten man of the group, but he’s not forgotten by his teammates; Bairstow went out of his way Wednesday night to thank Negedu for his friendship.
“It’s real satisfying, because they saw the vision,” Neal said of that group of seven. “… I’d like to see other schools’ 2010 classes, where their guys are now compared to our guys.
“That’s a credit to (the players), and it’s a credit to how serious we take player development and how serious we fit the pieces to the puzzle. We don’t (just) take the best player. We want guys that are gonna work and have that mentality, and it’s awesome to know that those guys have been here the whole time.”
With Wednesday’s victory, Williams, Bairstow and Perez have experienced 103 UNM victories. But they’ve experienced trials, too – especially in March.
As freshmen, they and their teammates settled for an NIT berth. As sophomores, their late rally fell short against Louisville in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32.
And last year, Harvard sent them packing in the Round of 64.
“It’s been a crazy four years,” Williams said, “but there’s been a lot of winning. … A lot of good, good guys along the way, coaches and players. If they gave me six years of eligibility, I probably would use all six of them.
“The chemistry has been incredible; the journey’s been incredible. There’s still another big chapter that needs to be written (in the NCAA Tournament), but the beginning of it was really good. Because we felt like we had something special from the get-go.”