Emotions escalated in New Mexico’s 81-58 win Wednesday night at The Pit.
A ruckus involving both coaches and players took place midcourt between the No. 15 Lobos and Air Force in the second half. UNM, holding a 63-51 lead at that point, used the incident as motivation through the remainder of the game, pulling away from the Falcons to secure its 20th victory of the season.
The win over Air Force ensured UNM’s sole possession of the top of the Mountain West Conference standings. Colorado State owns second place outright with its 73-69 win over Nevada, while Air Force drops to third.
“I love Pit games,” said UNM head coach Steve Alford, whose team improved to 20-3 overall and 7-1 in MWC play. “There is nothing better.”
Lobo senior guard Jamal Fenton, left, lets out a yell as he and teammate, senior Chad Adams, walk off the court after the Lobos’ win Wednesday night at The Pit. With the 81-58 victory over Air Force, the No. 15 New Mexico men’s team maintains sole possession of first place in the Mountain West Conference.
Coaches and players from both sides of the court took issue with each other 13 minutes into the second half. UNM’s Jamal Fenton and Kendall Williams, along with Air Force’s Kyle Green, received technical fouls for getting into an heated exchange with each other.
After officials watched a replay of the incident, Alford said Fenton was seen pushing one of the Air Force players. As a result, Air Force’s Todd Fletcher was granted two foul shots.
Alford said the coaches’ exchange occurred when one of his assistants heard an Air Force assistant say something to a Lobo player, which caused both coaching staffs to exchange words at the midcourt line.
“I’m not going to sit back and watch that happen,” Alford said. “It made things get a little bit heated, but officials did a good job of separating and calming everybody down.”
Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich said he did not see what happened to spark the dispute, “but that’s neither here nor there.”
UNM responded by outscoring Air Force 18-4 during the final seven minutes of regulation. The Lobos appeared more aggressive after the half-court incident, much like when they built a 42-29 halftime edge. They needed a spark, too, after starting the second half shooting 2 of 10 from the floor.
“It fired us up,” said Williams, a junior guard. “That’s been our staple for us all year: toughness. It starts from the head coach down to the last player on the bench, especially at home. We’re not going to let anybody intimidate us.”
While scoring their 20th season win for the 26th time in school history, UNM had balanced scoring from all five starters. Junior guard Tony Snell, junior forward Cameron Bairstow and sophomore center Alex Kirk each scored 14 points.
UNM’s two big men dominated the contest in the early stages.
Bairstow and Kirk accounted for the first 10 points of the contest, with Kirk scoring seven in the early stages. UNM scored 14 more points in the paint than the Falcons. Bairstow also pulled down a team-high nine rebounds; Kirk added eight.
Williams joined that trio with 11 points. He also provided seven assists, six rebounds and four steals. UNM is 10-0 this year when Williams has at least five assists. Sophomore guard Hugh Greenwood added 13 points and five rebounds.
The Lobos’ strong shooting efforts continued. They finished the game 48.1 percent from the field, connecting on 26 of 54. Against Air Force, a team recognized as strong offensively and defensively from 3-point range, the Lobos hit nine shots from long range, two more than the Falcons.
From the free-throw line, UNM shot 64.5 percent.
“We’ve been hitting shots, but we’re getting more comfortable with execution,” Williams said. “We put a lot of emphasis on defense early in the year, and we kept that intensity up. Now we’re making sure we have a balanced attack all around.”
Air Force forward Mike Fitzgerald and guard Michael Lyons scored 16 points apiece. They were the only two Air Force players to reach double figures. No Falcon had more than four rebounds, and Air Force had a 39-24 rebounding disadvantage to UNM.
For the game, Air Force shot 20 of 50 from the field and 11 of 15 from the foul line.
“They’re a very good team, a very good defensive team,” Pilipovich said. “It was a heated game.”