The 15th-ranked Lobos (20-3, 7-1) reached the halfway point of the Mountain West Conference regular season race Wednesday alone in first place after cruising past visiting Air Force 81-58 before a near-capacity crowd in The Pit.
They got double-digit scoring from all five of their starters, including 14 apiece from Alex Kirk, Cameron Bairstow and Tony Snell.
Hugh Greenwood added 13 and Kendall Williams 11 with a game-high seven assists.
The combination of the big men, Kirk and Bairstow, set the tone against the Falcons’ 2-3 zone early in the game, then it helped finish things off by plowing loose for even more offensive production in the game’s final 10 minutes.
In between the fans got to see the feisty side of UNM head coach Steve Alford and Lobos assistant coach Craig Neal. During a dead ball situation midway through the second half, a double-technical was called on both teams prior to a timeout.
As the players filtered back to their respective benches, UNM’s Jamal Fenton was assessed another technical for pushing Air Force guard Kyle Green. That sparked players from both teams to come out onto the floor as players and coaches began to exchange words.
During the confusion, Alford was clearly animated and had to be separated from the scrum. As he was led away, Neal came to the forefront and continued what Alford had started.
“The exchange of coaches came just because we had heard an assistant talk to one of our guys,” Alford said. “I’m not going to sit back and let that happen, so I think that made things get a little bit escalated and heated.”
Kirk said it’s somewhat refreshing to see the coaches react that way. He said it lets them know the coaches won’t stand for anything they deem a threat to their own club.
In a nutshell, that fighter’s mentality has come to define this season’s UNM squad. Tough on the road and even better at home, the Lobos have pushed and shoved their way past rest of the MWC and into sole possession of first place.
Air Force came into Wednesday’s game just a game behind New Mexico. Aside from a brief run where they cut a 13-point halftime deficit to single digits in the second half, there was never a doubt the Lobos were the better team.
They shot better (48 percent to 40), rebounded better (39-24) and made fewer mistakes (Falcons 15 turnovers; Lobos 11).
“If they hold serve at home and steal a few on the road then they’re going to finish No. 1 [in the conference],” said Dave Pilipovich, Air Force head coach. “It’s still anybody’s game but if they continue to play like they do, they’ll be fine.”
Pilipovich said UNM’s ability to get to the free throw line — the Lobos were 20-for-31 while the Falcons were just 11 of 15 — was a product of trying to deny the entry pass into the post.
“They’re good, that’s why they’re the 15th-ranked team in the country,” he said. “They’re a pretty good team.”
The Lobos head on the road for five of their final eight games, starting with their trip to UNLV on Saturday and then to last-place Fresno State on Feb. 13. Fresno State gave the Lobos a helping hand Wednesday by upsetting the Rebels (17-6, 4-4) at home, 64-55.
“Winning away from home is not easy,” Alford said. “In fact, with the parity in college basketball now, in a league like ours, it’s really difficult.”
Note: Colorado State kept pace with UNM with a road win at Nevada on Wednesday.
The Rams (19-4, 6-2) trailed by double figures early in the game but sealed it late by hitting key free throws in the final minute.