PROVO On a night they honored a legendary Yugoslav, a Canadian helped deliver BYU its 20th win of the season, a thrilling 76-68 win over New Mexico before an emotionally packed Marriott Center crowd of 20,732 Saturday night.
A night for the foreigners.
Jimmy Balderson came off the bench and took charge of a game that New Mexico seemingly had in its grasp for most of the contest. The Canadian made big shots, produced steals and hit big free throws. In the closing minute he recovered from a take down football tackle by UNM's Blake Harden after a steal and made dash down to attempt a layup. He then buried more free throws. Balderson's latch, lock and tug-a-way of a key rebound out of the hands of Lobo center David Chiotti when the game was in doubt could be classified as a felony.
"Jimmy was terrific," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "He hit some big shots and we kind of rode him in the middle of the game."
Balderson finished with 21 points and eight rebounds in 29 minutes. The Cougar win cemented a No. 3 seed Thursday in the Mountain West Conference Tournament in Denver against Utah at 10 p.m. It was BYU's 10th win in 11 games and extended its win streak to six games. The Cougars finish the regular season 20-7 overall, 12-4 in the MWC.
The Lobos, who led the Cougars the entire first half and four minutes of the second before a Balderson 3-ball gave BYU a 41-39 lead, dropped to 17-12, 8-8 heading into a tourney date with UNLV Thursday.
"This was a great college game," Rose said. "The kind you play in March. I give a lot of credit to our guys. They took New Mexico's best shot, hung in there and kept their composure."
Once again, BYU had five players in double-figures. Behind Balderson, Keena Young had 13 points, Trent Plaisted 10, Rashaun Broadus 12 and senior Brock Reichner 11.
The crowd in excess of 20,000 saluted the wife and children of hall of famer Kresimir Cosic during ceremonies retiring his No. 11 jersey. It exploded with a deafening roar several times in the game, including a five-second call on Lobo guard Mark Walters with two minutes left in the game and BYU ahead 64-62.
Rose said the festivities gave his team "a different feeling" on game day, perhaps adding pressure to get a win for the Cosic crowd.
Balderson said, "It was a fun game, 20,000 people were out there. You have to play hard with that many in the stands. We had a good time., the crowd was loud. They are a good team especially when they hit their shots. Last game those shots weren't going in . . . we knew it would be a battle."
The Cougars used a familiar script in the win. When crunch time came, they delivered. Until a pair of late Kellen Walter bombs in the closing seconds, BYU took charge of the game when it counted, outscoring UNM 14-1 in a span of a minute and a half in the final 2:20.
"We needed more offensive consistency tonight and we did not perform as well as we would have liked," UNM coach Ritchie McKay said.
Funny, but the Lobos threatened to end BYU's 12-game home win streak by shooting a sizzling 68 percent in the first half before cooling to 51 percent for the game. Although sixth in the league in offense and 3-point shots, the Lobos rained 11-of-21 bombs on the Cougars, including five from Jeff Hart.
But center Dave Chiotti made only 3-of-13 shots, and after out-rebounding BYU 10-5 in the opening minutes to lead 22-13, the Cougars finished with a 35-26 advantage on the boards.
UNM outshot BYU 51 to 46 percent for the game, but BYU made 21-of-25 free throws and the perfect dozen at the end was the difference.
The game was tied at 62 when Plaisted put back a missed BYU shot with just over two minutes to play. It then turned into a BYU parade at the free throw line where the Cougars made 12-of-12. Broadus hit six and Balderson four of those final charity tosses.
The win gave BYU its 29th season of 20 wins or more, a feat Rose said his staff and players planned on last summer.Said Rose, "It's a great tribute to our players. These guys have worked really , really hard. It is really a credit to our staff, our coaches have worked hard with these guys. I'm really proud of all of them. Now, we still have a lot to do."