Lobos at No. 13 after rally beats Creighton
Three years into coach Steve Alford's tenure at New Mexico, big-time college basketball is back at The Pit.
After last weekend's 66-61 victory over Creighton, New Mexico is 12-0 with the nation's longest winning streak. Not even a 29.9-percent shooting effort could deny the Lobos, who erased a 16-point deficit on Saturday - the second-biggest in the arena's 43-year history.
``The most exciting thing is we're 12 up, 12 down,'' Alford said. ``This team is doing a great job, but this team also has a lot of room to improve. Our foul shooting's not very good. Defensively, we have a lot of growth we can add.
``If we grow, this team's got a chance to be really good.''
New Mexico was No. 13 in the rankings released Monday, up six spots going into Wednesday's visit to Oral Roberts. The Lobos returned to the poll last week after a 10-year absence and have their highest ranking since No. 12 on Jan. 18, 1999.
They're led by gritty forward Roman Martinez, the team's only senior, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds against Creighton. He specializes in hustle plays that never get into the boxscore but often make the difference between wins and losses.
Just like Saturday night.
New Mexico's Darington Hobson missed two free throws with a minute left as the Lobos tried to extend a 59-57 lead. Martinez slipped past two defenders, grabbed the rebound while going out of bounds and flipped the ball back to Hobson for a dunk.
``We've got a senior who just won't let this team lose,'' Alford said.
Hobson, a 6-foot-7 junior college transfer, led the comeback with 22 points, 16 rebounds and six assists. Point guard Dairese Gary, who scored 12 points, has logged 14 assists and two turnovers over the past four games.
``They've got a lot of guys who can score,'' Creighton coach Dana Altman said. ``Anytime you're that dangerous with a number of guys who can score, you're going to have a good basketball team. Steve does a really good job. Getting prepared to play them, we knew they'd give us problems.''
New Mexico's 12-0 start is the second best in school history, matching the 1973-74 squad. The 1967-68 Lobos, considered by many fans to be the school's best team, won their first 17.
Bad news for visitors: The earsplitting atmosphere at The Pit has returned, too.
Despite a $60 million renovation project that has reduced seating from 18,000, a smaller capacity crowd of 14,333 was at its rim-rocking loudest for Creighton.
``They helped us win the game,'' Martinez said. ``The fans, every time we scored, it was like a last-second shot. It was unbelievable.''
New Mexico survived a terrible first half, trailing Creighton 31-15 with 5:55 before halftime. Over one stretch, the Lobos missed 10 straight field goals and 19 of 20 attempts. They were down 40-28 at the break and Alford offered a few words in the locker room.
``He was mad,'' Hobson said. ``He told us we weren't playing our game. We were giving too many open shots and they were beating us at transition.''
Whatever Alford said, it worked. New Mexico outscored the Bluejays 38-21 in the second half. The key was a tightened defense, starting with a 1-2-2 press that fell back into zone.
Meanwhile, the Lobos committed only five turnovers. Three nights earlier, they had four in a 96-57 defeat of Northern Arizona.
``What other teams can't take from us is our willingness to win,'' Martinez said. ``We never quit.''
Alford credited Creighton's first-half defense but noted New Mexico's 22-7 advantage in offensive rebounds softened his team's 20-of-63 shooting performance by providing extra possessions that helped the Lobos climb back after halftime.
``That's effort. I appreciate the guys' effort,'' Alford said.