DENVER (AP) -- They were ready for prime time, and next, the New
Mexico Lobos hope to show they're ready for the NCAA Tournament,
Led by 23 points from Danny Granger and a career-high 12 assists
from Mark Walters, the Lobos beefed up their postseason resume
Thursday night with their seventh straight victory, 85-71 over BYU
in the first round of the Mountain West Conference tournament.
"If they're going to lose, it's going to take an awfully good
effort to beat them," BYU coach Steve Cleveland said.
Conference officials scheduled second-seeded New Mexico (24-6)
for a 9 p.m. EST start so more members of the NCAA selection
committee -- many of whom live back East -- would be awake to watch.
With their 24 wins being offset by a weak RPI rating of 85 and
an abysmal schedule rated 298th toughest in the country, the Lobos
find themselves squarely on the bubble, as they try to make the
tournament for the first time since 1999.
They need to impress at every opportunity and they did just that
against seventh-seeded BYU (9-21), which was led by Jared Jensen
with 19 points.
Overcoming a slow start, Walters started moving the ball around
better and finished with 12 points to go with his 12 assists.
Alfred Neale went 4-for-5 from 3-point range to finish with 15. The
star of the team, Granger, showed his versatility -- whirling in the
paint, spotting up outside and catching a long pass for a sweet
dunk late to lead the Lobos in scoring for the 16th time this
Granger also finished with eight rebounds, five assists, four
blocks and three steals and the Lobos improved to 24-3 with him in
the lineup -- another factor they hope the NCAA will consider on
"We're not focused on who's watching us," said coach Ritchie
McKay, who earned his first career victory in a postseason
conference tournament in five tries. "We just take the next 20
minutes. We had two good halves tonight. We'll be judged on the
body of our work."
Walters' nice passing was part of a 26-assist night for New
Mexico. McKay said the magic number is usually 18 or 19.
"It was just in the flow of things," Walters said. "I didn't
realize I had that many until coach told me."
Conference commissioner Craig Thompson said the Lobos were given
the prime spot in the first day's lineup -- top-seeded Utah played
at noon Denver time -- in part to give them the exposure they might
need to give the conference a second team in the NCAA's 65-team
"It was definitely part of the decision," he said. "It was
that, the crowd they could bring. They earned it."
Not so happy was third-seeded Air Force, which played San Diego
State in the late game, with the winner advancing to face UNM on
Mike Hall added 13 points for the Cougars, who finished the
season on a five-game losing streak and with the same record they
had in 1997-98 -- Cleveland's first season with the program.
After the game, Cleveland pulled McKay aside and complimented
him on the job he's done with the Lobos, who defeated Utah 2½ weeks
ago for the third win in their current streak.
"I'm not sure if we played them 10 times we'd beat them once,"
Cleveland said. "They're a very, very talented team and they're
playing with a lot of confidence right now."