GAME NOTES: The New Mexico Lobos begin defense of their 2012 Mountain West Conference Tournament title on Wednesday night, as the 15th-ranked team in the nation clashes with the Wyoming Cowboys at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
The top seed for this 14th annual tournament, New Mexico picked up a second crown last year by defeating San Diego State in a 68-59 final. The other championship for the Lobos came back in 2005 versus Utah, and in between those two titles the team never even made it back to the final round.
To open the 2012-13 regular season, the Lobos looked unbeatable and that's what they were through the first 12 games before being shocked by South Dakota State, although as it turns out, SDSU wound up winning the Summit League Tournament title on Tuesday night so maybe that defeat isn't as bad as it was earlier thought to be.
In conference play, New Mexico was cruising along with just two defeats in 15 games, but in the season finale the squad was stung by Air Force in Colorado, 89-88.
As for the eighth-seeded Cowboys, a team which entered this year's tourney with a mark of 7-13 in the event all-time and have been in the title game only once (69-64 loss to San Diego State in 2006), they got action off on a positive Tuesday night with an 85-81 victory against Nevada in order to advance.
The Lobos won both meetings with Wyoming during the regular season, although the first meeting on the road in late January was decided by just four points, 63-59. Even though the Lobos won both contests, they still trail in the all- time series by a 64-63 margin.
The winner of this meeting will take on the survivor of the Boise State/San Diego State contest in the semifinals on Friday night.
Larry Nance Jr. scored 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds as Wyoming held on to defeat the Nevada Wolf Pack by four points in the opening round of the MWC Tournament on Tuesday night. Before fouling out, Nance knocked down all but one of his 10 field goal attempts for the Cowboys, followed by Derrious Gilmore with 17 points and a game-high eight assists. Leonard Washington responded with 18 points and Josh Adams 10, the pair combining to shoot 15-of-24 at the free-throw line. The Pokes knocked down an impressive 66.7 percent from the field, despite hitting on a mere 2-of-7 behind the 3- point line. It also didn't hurt that Wyoming, which led by as many as 12 points in the frame, converted 19-of-29 at the charity stripe as well. The Cowboys outscored Nevada by a 24-15 margin at the free-throw line in the close call.
Nance has scored a combined 35 points in the last two games, but against New Mexico less than two weeks ago he was limited to only four points. In the first meeting of the season, it was nine points on 3-of-11 shooting from the floor.
First and foremost, New Mexico is home to the MWC Player of the Year in Kendall Williams who led the program in both scoring (14.0 ppg) and assists (149), while turning the ball over just 66 times. Playing more than 34 minutes per game Williams, who scored a staggering 46 points in a win over Colorado State about three weeks ago, made a huge impression at the free-throw line where he made good on 138-of-178. Giving the program solid leadership that cannot go unrecognized, Tony Snell was responsible for 12.1 ppg and another 90 assists as one of only two players to have started every game. Alex Kirk (12.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 56 blocked shots) and Cameron Bairstow (9.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) can handle the action in the paint, the former doing it at both ends of the floor as he was named to both the All-MWC Second Team and the All-Defensive Team.
Even though the Cowboys don't have to turn right around and head back to the hardwood in less than 24 hours, the challenge of being on the road and up against a mixed crowd will not be easy at all.