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ALBUQUERQUE — For New Mexico senior Cameron Bairstow, Wednesday night’s game with Air Force was all he could have sought in the final home appearance of his career.
Bairstow finished with 21 points and seven rebounds to lead the 21st-ranked Lobos to an 80-52 victory.
A leading candidate for Mountain West Conference player of the year, Bairstow finished off his night with just the second 3-pointer of his career. He left to a standing ovation with 5:26 remaining and New Mexico leading 71-40.
“In terms of how things went and getting a win, shoot that 3 and experience that sort of stuff and the crowd, that was all part of the dream,” he said. “I think that’s as good as it’s going to get.”
The Lobos finish the regular season on Saturday at No. 10 San Diego State, the team they started the night tied for first place with in the conference.
Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich knew his team was in for a rough night from the outset.
“In this environment, on senior night, we knew it was going to be a buzz saw,” he said.
Fellow senior Kendall Williams added 13 points for the Lobos (24-5, 15-2 Mountain West). Alex Kirk had 10 points and four blocks to key New Mexico’s defensive effort that held the Falcons (11-17, 5-12) to 34.5 percent from the field (19 for 55).
Air Force’s leading scorer Tre’ Coggins went 3 for 13 from the field while scoring 11 points. He didn’t make his first basket until 2 minutes into the second half. Justin Hammonds also scored 11 points, nine in the first half.
New Mexico’s scrambling defense prevented Air Force from getting into its patient, half-court offense and limited the Falcons’ ability to establish the backdoor cuts that are the basis of the offense.
“They pressured,” Pilipovich said. “They switched everything. We knew that was going to happen. We just didn’t play through the switches as well as we normally do. Their ball pressure, their size. And when we did get to the rim, they got shot blockers back there to block shots. . We knew they were there, but we’ve got the shot blockers in our mind and we missed some uncontested layups. It had so much to do with their execution.”
New Mexico had 10 steals and forced 17 turnovers.
“Our guys are really getting locked in on the scouting reports,” New Mexico coach Craig Neal said. “They’re really locked in on what we’re trying to take away and what we don’t want to give up. They did everything we wanted them to do in the first half and the second half.”
The defensive effort helped make up for New Mexico’s early struggles offensively, Neal said.
“I thought we had little jitters to start off,” he said. “Kendall and Cam, emotionally, it’s a tough deal. Going down that ramp the last time and doing the things they’ve done here. So we didn’t get off to the greatest of starts, even though we were up 14 at half.”