Stevens: Alfords' Lobos Run Past Air Force Into Mountain Semifinals

March 8, 2012

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Lobo Men - Mountain West Tournament - Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, Nevada
Thursday: New Mexico Lobos 79, Air Force Falcons 64

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

The bench that Lobo Coach Steve Alford leaned on so much in New Mexico's run to the 2012 Mountain West regular-season title might be even more critical in a three-day run in Las Vegas.

Yes, this is another one of those Vegas' numbers game - fresh legs are nice.

In Game One of the Lobos' planned three-game run, the Lobo bench - specifically Demetrius Walker - was outstanding in UNM's 79-64 quarterfinal win over Air Force.

Alford went frequently to his bench Thursday night in the Vegas Thomas & Mack, but the number that produced the best was No. 40 - Walker.

"Everything was working for me tonight," said Walker. "I just wanted to come out here and play strong and perform like I had been in practice."

Walker went 5-of-6 from the field and 6-of-8 from the line and led all scorers with 19 points. He also was 3-of-4 from long range.

"I thought we just hung in there," said Alford. "We took the 3-point away, but we gave them a lot of points in the paint."

Walker was joined in double figures by Drew Gordon with 15, Kendall Williams with 13 and Tony Snell with 10. Gordon had to share board honors with Hugh Greenwood as both Lobos had seven rebounds. Williams had five assists and UNM had only ten turnovers. UNM won the board battle, 29-22.

Air Force actually won the scoring battle inside as the Falcons outscored UNM 24-18 in the paint, but a Lobo in the paint with the ball was often hammered.

Air Force shot 50 percent from the floor to 46.5 percent for New Mexico. The Lobos huge edge came at the free-throw line where UNM shot 31-of-37 and from the bench where the Lobos outscored Air Force, 32-19.

"(Gordon) got off to a slow start," said Alford. "In the second half, he was much more assertive. The whole key is winning and advance."

The Lobos appeared to be in coast mode throughout the second half and probably coasted a bit too much heading down to the five-minute mark.

"In the second half, we kind of let them come back in the game and made it more difficult than it needed to be," said Walker, whose 19 points were a UNM career high.

The Falcons were down 67-50 (17) at the 7:15 mark, but threw out a run that cut UNM's lead to 69-60 with 4:46 to play. Alford called time at 4:39 - up nine.

UNM came out and Walker drilled a high jumper from the baseline and UNM was up 72-60. That score carried into the 3:29 media break. The Lobos then went inside to Gordon for two and the Lobos were up 74-60 and the Falcons were running out of clock.

"Eventually, we wore them down," said Williams.

The win handed UNM its 25th win of the year against six defeats. Air Force leaves the tourney at 13-16. Air Force got 17 points from Michael Green, 14 from Kyle Green and 12 from Todd Fletcher.

The game wasn't exactly the romp that the Lobos laid on the Falcons in the two regular-season wins, but it also looked like UNM was trying to save a little fuel for the Mountain West semifinals.

The Lobos, UNLV and San Diego State all appear to be NCAA Tournament teams, but that doesn't mean these three teams are not eyeing the MW title and improving their seed for the NCAA dance.

First Half: New Mexico Lobos 45, Air Force Falcons 31

There were three things that favored the Lobos big time in the first half: Walker, defense and tempo.

The Falcons ran out to a 15-14 lead and then watched the Lobos and Walker run and gun. "If you can get in the 40s against Air Force in a 20-minute period, you have to feel pretty good," Lobo Coach Steve Alford said at the halftime break.

If you get 14 points in 11 minutes from a bench player, you have to feel good too. Walker was the main gunner as UNM pulled out of that 15-14 hole and into a 14-point halftime lead. It could have been more for the Lobos.

Air Force guarded its 15-14 lead at the 10:58 mark before Walker drilled a three off a feed by Phillip McDonald. Gordon, Bairstow and Walker then each hit two free throws as UNM expanded its lead to 23-15. Bairstow had six points off the bench.

Walker then drove the baseline and dropped in a short shot as a Falcon slid underneath him and was called for the block. Walker drilled the free throw to push UNM to 26-15 at the 7:52 mark. UNM was on a 12-0 run. Walker made it a 15-0 run with a trey that formed a fat 29-15 Lobo lead.

Air Force finally got off the 15 mark with a single free throw: 29-16. At the 5:34 mark, an intentional foul by Green on Walker led to a 34-18 Lobo lead.

UNM made it 36-18 on a Williams transition dunk off a Greenwood feed. Williams hung on the rim a bit too long and thumped his chest on the landing and got whistled for a technical. Air Force used that small break to make it 36-22.

The Lobos were up by 17 points, 41-22 with 3:44 to play before settling for the 45-31 halftime lead.