For as much hype as Colorado State's rematch against New Mexico received leading up to Tuesday night, one had to wonder if the contest could actually live up to its pregame billing.
Surprisingly, it did.
The Rams avenged a January 14 loss to the Lobos in Fort Collins by beating UNM at The Pit, 68-56. Considering all the on-court and off-court drama involving the two teams from their previous meeting, CSU's win in Albuquerque couldn't have been any sweeter. It also places the Rams (19-9 overall, 11-4 MWC) a half game ahead of Boise State and Nevada for first place in the Mountain West Conference standings.
"We have a great assistant coaching staff and Willie (Glover) put a great game plan together," Rams head coach Larry Eustachy said in a CBS Sports telecast after the game. "These guys keep carrying me across the finish line and it's a neat, neat group."
The teams traded baskets early on, but the Rams held a narrow edge for a large portion of the first half. CSU star guard Gian Clavell missed his first four field goal attempts, but in typical fashion, heated up in a monstrous way.
CSU's senior leader had a nice first-half showing, eventually notching 12 points before tweaking his ankle as the half expired. Thankfully for CSU, he came back even stronger than before.
Clavell scored 10 straight points for the Rams over a stretch that included a pair of difficult threes, taking a 38-35 CSU lead to 51-41. Clavell's electric offense and heroic defense netted him a game-high 24 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 3 steals. He played the entire game, with the exception of a one minute stretch late in the first half.
Not to be outdone was fellow senior stalwart Emmanuel Omogbo, who tallied his league-leading 16th double-double of the season with 17 points and 14 rebounds. It was Omogbo's 11th double-double in conference play, placing him second for a single season in league history.
"Shout out to J.J. (Avila)," Omogbo said after the win. "He texted me right before the game and said, 'You better go get a double-double.' I was like, 'Oh yeah, I see you this summer.' I just try to play hard and leave it all to God, just come out here, play my hardest for my teammates."
Omogbo was quick to point out the importance of Clavell's performance in giving CSU its first win at The Pit since 2007. It also marked the first time in school history CSU beat both San Diego State and New Mexico on the road in the same season.
"He hit some key shots for us and we went up ten (points) and we wouldn't look back," Omogbo said of Clavell.
The Rams' dynamic duo of Clavell and Omogbo, who combined for 41 points and 20 rebounds, continue to carry the team through league play. The Rams have played the majority of conference games with just seven scholarship players.
"We told them it's a number of days, then it's over. So the underclassmen really can't let them down," Eustachy said of Clavell and Omogbo. "They're setting the example of when those guys get older, the underclassmen for those guys can't let them down. So it starts and ends with (Omogbo) and Gian. The other young guys are doing a heck of a job just doing their job."
The Rams have three regular season games remaining before embarking on conference tournament play in Las Vegas. Next up, the Rams host San Diego State on Saturday for a 6 pm MST tipoff at Moby Arena in Fort Collins.