New Mexico held on to first place in the Mountain West Conference with a 19-3 record overall and a league slate of 6-1 by setting season highs with 56% (28 of 50) shooting and 22 assists while equaling a season best with 11 three-pointers.
"Well this was a key game," said UNM head coach Steve Alford. "I thought that we played well and Nevada played well and we have had some separation and that is a key. In February, we try to get some separation from other teams and there has been three teams that we have been able to do that from. There are now three teams that are at least four games behind and that is good."
The Lobos did not have an easy time defeating Nevada (11-10, 2-5), who came into the game having lost two of its last five games. But the Wolf Pack gave the Lobos all they could handle, keeping the game close through the first half and playing tough halfway through the second half.
New Mexico opened with a pair of treys to take a 6-0 lead early and set The Pit crowd into joyous noise. But as they would the entire game, Nevada answered and cut the lead to 8-6 on a Kevin Panzier trey with 15:32 left in the first half.
The Lobos twice ran the lead up to six in the first half but Nevada made runs to keep it close. New Mexico led just 34-32 at the break.
The Wolf Pack tied the game at 34-34 to start the second half and took its first lead at 39-37 on a pair of Deonte Burton free throws with 17:00 left in the game. The two teams battled back and forth with neither team taking more than a three point lead for the next six minutes.
Then Nevada took their final lead, 51-50 with 11:17 left in the game, on a Burton trey.
The Lobos would then crank up the defense and went on a 10-2 run capped by a Chad Adams trey with 7:07 left. The Wofl Pack continued to hit threes, making The Pit crowd nervous but UNM steadily gained steam, outscoring Nevada 25-9 over the last 11 minutes.
""Tonight our defensive looked better in the last 10 minutes but we have had games where the entire 40 minutes has been stifling," said Alford. "They made a lot of shots early and the one thing our defense has been good at is patience. In those last 10 minutes we were the fresher team and hopefully our defense had something to do with wearing them down. I thought they played well."
UNM was paced by Hugh Greenwood's 15 points and seven rebounds, but the big news was 12 points from junior Demetrius Walker, who had gone the entire month of January without making a shot and did not play against Wyoming on Wednesday.
Alford said Walker has been practicing better over the last 10 days.
"I was going into this game knowing I was going to play him because he responded very maturely to not playing in Wyoming the last two days in practice to doing that," said Alford. "As I have tried to send as many subtle messages as I can it comes to effort at the defensive end in this program and he gave that to us tonight. I think that opened him up to do a lot of other things and he can be a key if he will play with this kind of energy at a concentrated level."
Asked how it felt to see his first shot of the game fall in for three, Walker was enthusiastic and succinct.
"Oh it felt great!" said Walker to much laughter. "I don't think I hit a shot since Cincinnati. That first shot tonight, in The Pit, it felt amazing."
Walker also played the entire final eight minutes due to Tony Snell being limited by illness. Walker said it felt great to be left in as the game was being decided.
It feels great. That's all I did towards the end of the season last year, so I just want to get " Closing the game with my teammates, there's no better feeling than that," said Walker. "It's just like going to war and coming out victorious and tonight we did that. That's the first time, maybe the second time this season I've been able to close a game like that and it felt really great just to come out and provide another win."
Nevada finished with three players in double figures, paced by Malik Story's 20 points. Burton and Jordan Burris each added 13 and 10 points.
UNM also got 10 points and four rebounds from Chad Adams, whose playing time was limited due to his injured knee, which he wrenched early in the game before returning. The Lobos got a big lift from Adams and Walker, who provided the lion's share of points from the bench – UNM's reserves outscored Nevada's 32-6 for the game.