Chris Perez never saw much playing time for the New Mexico basketball team, primarily taking the court in the final moments of blowout victories.
That changed Wednesday night. The senior walk-on guard earned his career start in his final night at The Pit alongside fellow seniors Kendall Williams and Cameron Bairstow, both regular starters.
Perez only played one minute in the first half but gave an assist to a fellow senior, regular-starting guard Kendall Williams, for a 3-pointer.
Senior Lobo guard Chris Perez is embraced by his teammates at the end of the game against Air Force at the Pit on Wednesday night. Perez began his career with the Lobos as a walk-on and not only was announced as a starter for the game, but scored with 42 seconds to play. The game was the last home game for the senior players which included Perez, Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams.
“I want to thank my teammates,” Perez told the crowd after the Lobos captured an 80-52 victory over Air Force. “They’ve been a lot more talented than me, but they still are really good friends. It’s been unbelievable to be friends with these guys.”
Air Force never really challenged the Lobos at any point in the game. At around the eight-minute mark with the game well in hand, the Pit fans regaled with “We want Chris” chant, and resumed that chant at various times. He returned at the 4:34 mark and closed out the game.
He scored his only field goal with 42.3 seconds left on the clock, working the ball in the post, pump-faked and hit a jumper. The crowd erupted with elation. Perez finished the game playing six minutes hitting 1 of 3 from the field.
Perez, Williams and Bairstow have 103 career wins with one regular-season game and a postseason waiting, and Perez will end his time at UNM with the most wins as a walk-on.
The team recognized three all seniors players in a postgame celebration, along with two trainers Tyler Pientka and Connor O’Hea. Williams posted in 13 points and three assists in 29 minutes, and Bairstow recorded 21 points, including his second career 3-pointer.
Bairstow said he and fellow Aussie Hugh Greenwood had a bet whether Bairstow could get a 3-pointer before Greenwood slammed a dunk.
“I told him, ‘Senior night is coming up. You better get a dunk soon,” Bairstow said. “I just put one up and it actually went in. It felt pretty good.”
Each player addressed the crowd after comments from Neal. While Williams gave his speech, he thanked the crowd by taking off his game shoes, signing them and threw them into the crowd. He came into the postgame press conference barefoot.
“Oh, I’ve got another pair of shoes,” Williams said. “It just hit me yesterday (Tuesday). I’ve had a laid-back approach to things and didn’t really think of my speech too much. I just wanted to thank a lot of people because a lot of people helped me. The shoe thing just kind of came.”
Neal told the crowd Perez did not made road trips in his first three years, but this year he traveled for every road game. Neal also joked to the crowd about Perez being an alarm clock for Williams, who in the past showed up late for team functions after oversleeping.
“I’ve known all along (to start Perez). I just had to battle inside myself and I made the right decision,” Neal said at the postgame press conference.
The win preserved UNM’s lead in the Mountain West standings. Co-leader San Diego State played at UNLV later Wednesday night, but the final score was not available by press deadline.
Against Air Force UNM built a 12-7 lead before taking control 6:40 into the game, expanding its lead to 20-9 with an 8-0 run. The Lobos had five free throws and an Alex Kirk triple over a five-minute span.
“I thought we had a little jitters to start off,” Neal said. “Kendall and Cam, emotionally, it’s a tough deal going down that ramp the last time and doing some things they’ve done here. So we didn’t get off to the greatest of starts, even though we were up 14 at half.”
Neal said he felt the team has much better flow in the second half. The Lobos had another big 11-0 run across both half and pushed the advantage to 38-23. UNM continued to outpace Air Force, outscoring the Falcons 46-32 in the latter 20 minutes.
Air Force struggled shooting the ball in the first half, completing only eight field goals on 29 attempts. The Falcons finished 34.5 percent for the game (19 of 55).
Guard Tre’ Coggins and forward Justin Hammonds each had 11 points. Hammonds dropped five of his eight field goals off the bench. Coggins hit three 3-pointers, but missed 13 shots and made none in the first half.