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LARAMIE, Wyo. — The “way” in Laramie wasn’t exactly smooth or easy, and took an extra five minutes to find. But the University of New Mexico Lobo men’s basketball team did find a ‘way.’
The Lobos beat the Wyoming Cowboys 72-69 Wednesday night in Laramie, needing overtime to do it.
The Lobos managed it with some timely 3-pointers, some timely free throws by Cleveland Thomas and a few huge defensive plays.
Maybe the biggest defensive play of the game came with less than 16 seconds left, when Wyoming’s Riley Grabau was flashing unattended to the UNM rim looking at a layup that would have pushed Wyoming into a 71-70 lead.
Instead, Grabau found a 7-foot-wall in the form of Alex Kirk. Kirk came over from the weak side and slapped away Grabau’s potential go-ahead shot.
Thomas, who earlier had banged in a huge trey, pounced on the loose ball and was fouled. He knocked down both free throws to push UNM up 72-69.
UNM had to survive another Grabau 3-point attempt, but it fell short.
The Lobos gobbled up the rebound and gobbled up its second Mountain West win, an important road.
“We knew it was going to be tight,” Neal said. “We won last year on a last-second shot. Our guys were tough. Alex probably makes the biggest play of the year defensively.”
The Lobos had four players in double-figures: Cameron Bairstow (15), Kirk (12), Thomas (12) and Kendall Williams (10).
Grabau had 24 for Wyoming and Nathan Sobey had 16. The Lobos shot 43.5 percent from the field and Wyoming shot 49 percent.
UNM had 14 offensive rebounds to only five for the Cowboys, who rarely send players to the offensive boards. That cautious approach eventually hurt the Cowboys on the scoreboard.
Moreover, the Lobos had only eight turnovers.
“We are going to win a lot of games, if we can do that,” Neal said of UNM’s eight turnovers. “That says a lot about our guys.”’
The Lobos eventually pushed their score into the 70s, but Wyoming did a good job in controlling the tempo and limited UNM’s fast-break opportunities. The final stats gave the Lobos no fast-break points.
“I kind of knew we weren’t going to get any transition points,” Neal said of Wyoming’s strategy to quickly fall back on defense and force UNM into a half-court game. “They (the Cowboys) did a nice job (driving) and they got to the line.”
Wyoming went 15 of 21 from the line, but missed two key 1-and-1 chances in overtime.
The Lobos gave up a 6-0 run at the close of the first half, but still were up 33-31 at the break.
The Lobos got points from Kirk, Williams and Greenwood to slip into a 47-39 lead in the second half, but the Cowboys then rallied out of a 51-44 hole into a 54-53 lead.
It was a dogfight after that, up to and including overtime, but Thomas’ big makes in the overtime period helped seal it.
“I felt confident,” said Thomas. “We know we didn’t play our best basketball, but we are happy with the win.”
Thomas hit his final two free throws with 14.2 ticks to go and UNM was up 72-69. “I just wanted to make sure I made them,” Thomas said of his free throws.