New Mexico's Charlie Thomas discovered Thursday that a 16-rebound performance will get him a win, a trip to the WAC tournament semifinals and a kiss from his coach.
The Lobos' 6-7 senior forward hauled down half his team's rebounds as New Mexico easily defeated Air Force, 74-60 in the Huntsman Center. UNM meets UTEP tonight at 7 p.m."We worked very hard on rebounding this week," Thomas said. "Coach wasn't too happy with what happened against Hawaii."
Last Saturday in Albuquerque, Thomas tallied only three rebounds in New Mexico's upset loss to Hawaii - a loss that cost the Lobos a share of the league championship.
"Sixteen rebounds!" New Mexico Coach Dave Bliss exclaimed as he entered the post-game interview room and saw Thomas. The coach then planted a kiss on his forward's cheek.
While the Lobos outrebounded the Falcons 32-23, they did even more damage far from the hoop - outside the 3-point stripe. Led by Rob Robbins, UNM hit nine of 19 3-point attempts - tying its own WAC tournament record for successful 3-pointers - to shoot down any chance Air Force had of pulling off the upset.
Robbins was 3-for-5 on 3-pointers and 10-for-17 from the field overall, scoring a game-high 25 points.
All of which was not exactly what Air Force Coach Reggie Minton anticipated when he prepared for New Mexico. After losing inside battles in two regular-season losses to the Lobos, Minton decided to concentrate on stopping them in close and hope ". . . they couldn't just go bombs away."
"Unfortunately, they hit some big shots early, which made us worry about our strategy," Minton said.
The Lobos came out smoking, almost putting the game away in the early moments. Darrell McGee hit UNM's first two shots of the game - both 3-pointers - to put the Lobos up 6-0. Although Air Force came back from a 10-2 deficit to close within a bucket at 10-8, New Mexico quickly built the lead back to eight and was never again seriously threatened.
And where was Air Force ace Ray Dudley while all this was happening? He spent most of his time surrounded by two or three Lobos.
"They did an effective job defensively (against Dudley) with a collective effort," Minton said. "I won't say it's the best job (anyone's done this year), but it was very effective."
WAC scoring-leader Dudley was particularly cold in the first half, scoring just six and missing all three of his 3-point attempts. He ended up with 19 points - almost eight below his average - but by the second half it was already too late for the Falcons.
The Lobos had a big gun of their own who was mostly muzzled - 7-2 center Luc Longley. The red-headed Australian - who Minton said "beat our brains out in both previous games" - had just six points and seven rebounds while playing only 26 minutes.
But Bliss took the blame for Longley's sub-par performance. The coach took his center out after he picked up his second foul with 11:43 remaining in the first half, and because the Lobos were playing well without him, Bliss let Longley sit on the bench.
"He never really got back into the game," Bliss said. "He was out of sync.
"I told Luc he's been carrying most of the load the last three weeks or so. The team owed him that one."
So Air Force completes its most successful season in years at 14-14, including a 6-10 league mark that tied the Falcons for sixth - their highest finish since joining the WAC.
"I told my team that they can walk out of here with their heads high," Minton said. "They reached heights no one expected them to reach and I'm very proud of them."
And New Mexico moves on with a 20-9 record, eyeing UTEP, the WAC tournament championship and a berth in the NCAAs. While Bliss insisted after the game that three or four WAC teams belong in the NCAAs, he'll be happy if only two teams go - as long as the Lobos are one of them.
But for now he said, "We're just happy we're still playing."