After a stellar regular-season run toward an outright Mountain West title, New Mexico isn’t taking anything for granted during the conference tournament.
The top-seeded and eighth-ranked Lobos look to extend their winning streak to 15 games while trying for a seventh consecutive victory over Air Force during Thursday’s quarterfinals in Las Vegas.
Though New Mexico (28-3) earned a share of the Mountain West regular-season title last year, a 14-2 league record and the outright championship wasn’t expected from a team with only one senior on its roster. The Lobos overachieved and now head into this year’s event looking to set the single-season school record for victories with a win Thursday.
New Mexico hasn’t won the MWC tournament title since 2005.
“We’ll be focused,” conference coach of the year Steve Alford told the school’s official Web site. “This team is hungry and focused. This thing gets harder and harder as we advance. What’s been amazing about this team is how they have handled pressure.”
Though New Mexico hasn’t lost since falling to UNLV on Jan. 9, the Lobos appear grounded as group while playing with plenty of confidence.
“We still have to play with that chip on our shoulder,” said junior Darington Hobson, the conference’s player of the year in his first season at New Mexico.
Hobson, a junior college transfer who was born in Las Vegas, averaged a team-leading 15.8 points and 9.1 rebounds this season, and 18.4 with 11.2 boards in his last five contests. He had 17 points in the Lobos’ 59-56 home win over Air Force on Feb. 20.
That close victory over the Falcons (10-20) will likely give the Lobos reason to be prepared for the third meeting between the teams in 2009-10. New Mexico has lost its first game of the tournament each of the last four seasons.
“This first game, we need to take seriously,” senior Ramon Martinez said. “Every game will be a battle.”
Air Force (10-20) snapped a nine-game losing streak with a 59-40 win over Wyoming in first-round action Wednesday, and its deliberate tempo has a tendency to frustrate teams.
After shooting 47.2 percent in a 73-50 win at Colorado Springs on Jan. 20, New Mexico shot 40.9 percent while the Falcons made 51.2 percent of their shots in last month’s contest.
“We have to get the game in the 70s,” said Alford, who’s 7-0 all-time versus Air Force.”We don’t want the game in the 40s or 50s. That favors them.”
Despite the solid effort at New Mexico, Air Force is averaging 53.3 points on 41.9 percent shooting during its six-game skid in the series.
“New Mexico is a great team,” said Air Force’s Grant Parker, who had 15 points against Wyoming. “We just want to come out and compete and play hard and give them our best shot.”
The 6-foot-7 Parker, who missed 10 games earlier this season with a stress reaction in his pelvis, is averaging a team-leading 13.5 points and had 17 at New Mexico last month.
After losing 16 consecutive conference tournament games, Air Force has won two of its last three at the event. The Falcons, though, are 1-64 versus ranked opponents with the lone win coming against UTEP on Feb. 15, 1992.