by Kristie Boudwin
There is no place like home for the UNM men's basketball team.
The Lobos extended their winning streak at The Pit to 21 straight, defeating the conference-leading Air Force Academy 62-59 on Saturday night.
"I am very impressed with Air Force," head coach Ritchie McKay said. "Going in I knew they were very good and thought they might be the best team we play all year."
The UNM starting lineup came out strong with a seven-point run before allowing the Falcons to score. The relentless Air Force team came back from behind, capitalizing on steals and wearing down the Lobos' defense.
McKay said what made Air Force so difficult to defend is its offense required the Lobos to play defense for the entire offensive possession - something that wears down most teams as the game goes on.
"It's so deflating," McKay said. "What I felt like our guys did a great job of was not letting that bother them. I think we played through Air Force's toughness."
The strength of both teams was tested until the bitter end. The game was tied at 54 with two minutes remaining. UNM guard Ryan Kersten broke the tie, recovering a missed shot by senior and captain Mark Walters. Kersten barely beat the shot clock with a reverse layup under the basket. Kersten said all he could see was the rim when he put the ball up.
"I saw him get hit on the arm and it looked like a foul," Kersten said of Walters' shot. "I didn't really think. I just shot a reverse layup. I didn't actually see the shot clock."
With 17 seconds remaining, the Lobos were up by one point with possession of the ball. Walters turned the ball over in the backcourt and Air Force's Antoine Hood recovered the ball. Hood went in for a layup and Walters quickly switched into defense mode and drew a charge.
"That's as close to a loss in The Pit as we have had in a long time," McKay said. "Antoine Hood - one of the best guards in the league - was driving down the lane with less than 20 seconds."
McKay said Walters' ability to react to a turnover like that without fouling Hood is a benefit of the experience a five-year senior brings to the team.
The crowd helped keep the team going throughout the game, but it's on the road where the Lobos need help after six straight losses away from The Pit.
"I would pretty much say we played the whole 40 minutes," Walters said. "For the most part it was a solid game for us. Air Force is the top of the league right now, so hopefully we can take this win and give us some confidence on the road at San Diego State and UNLV."