Martinez poised for final game at The Pit
Ro knows books, and Ro knows basketball.
Roman Martinez, the only senior on a soaring New Mexico squad, plays his last game at the Pit Wednesday against TCU. He's an academic standout - the brains, guts and glue of a team that has climbed from obscurity to a Top 10 national ranking.
Martinez, known as Ro, will make his 100th career start.
``Bittersweet,'' he said when asked about his final home game. ``I'm excited, privileged, to play Wednesday night in a great facility, the best in the nation with the best fans. Also kind of sad that it's my last game there. It's going to be a great one.''
The No. 8 Lobos (27-3, 13-2 Mountain West) can secure the school's first outright conference title in 16 years by beating TCU (13-16, 5-9).
Riding a 13-game winning streak, New Mexico is assured the No. 1 seed in the Mountain West tournament and no worse than a share of the season championship after beating BYU last weekend. The Lobos can match the school record for victories, a 28-5 mark set in 1995-96.
It has been quite a turnaround for the gritty Martinez, a native of El Paso, Texas, who endured a 15-17 season as a freshman under former coach Ritchie McKay, then became a key contributor during New Mexico's climb under third-year coach Steve Alford.
``The first year was rough,'' Martinez recalled. ``We had a losing season. We went through a lot. Then Coach Alford came in and had a different culture, a different way of playing and leading our team. We came out and the players responded. We've played well.
``This year, it's surprising and special, but we're not done yet,'' he added.
The easygoing Martinez, a 6-foot-6 gunner, is always a threat from outside, ranking second in the conference with a 42.6 percent average from 3-point range.
Yet as the only senior on the young Lobos, Martinez draws constant praise from Alford for his leadership skills, which become most apparent in efforts that aren't listed in a boxscore. Martinez always scrambles for loose balls, hustles on defense and slaps hands with teammates.
On Dec. 19, he had 11 points and 10 rebounds as the Lobos rallied to beat Creighton.
But the play of the night was Martinez zipping past two defenders to grab a missed free throw by teammate Darington Hobson. On his way out of bounds, Martinez flipped the ball to Hobson for a dunk that put New Mexico up 61-57 in the final minute.
``We've got a senior who just won't let this team lose,'' Alford said afterward.
Point guard Dairese Gary calls Martinez, his fellow co-captain, ``our everything.''
``When I get down or I feel like I'm playing bad, or the game's just not going our way, it's Ro who always picks everybody up,'' Gary said. ``If we need a big shot, Ro's shooting it. And most of the time, it's going in.''
Last week, Martinez was named to a prestigious academic All America team, selected by the country's sports information directors. He has a 3.48 grade-point average and is on schedule to graduate in May with a degree in marketing.
``He's just been a real inspiration to everybody on the team, on the court and off,'' Gary said.
It's sure to be a big night for Martinez and New Mexico's fans.
School officials expect to pass the 12 million mark in all-time attendance at The Pit, and the TCU game sold out two weeks ago. It's the fifth straight and ninth capacity crowd this season, despite a $60 million renovation project at the arena.
The Lobos, who shared last season's Mountain West title with BYU and Utah, will be presented with this season's championship trophy. They'll cut down the nets afterward, win or lose, and Alford feels Martinez deserves plenty of credit.
``He's had an unbelievable career,'' Alford said. ``I heard somebody doing an interview the other day - 27 wins, back-to-back conference championships, a Top 10 ranking, No. 1 seed in the tournament and we've got an academic All American on the team.
``That solidifies what we're trying to do with our program. Ro emulates everything we want done,'' he said.