By Arnie Stapleton: The Associated Press
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Darrington Hobson’s 28 points helped eighth-ranked New Mexico stave off a scare from the scrappy Air Force Falcons 75-69 Thursday in the Mountain West Conference quarterfinals.
Dairese Gary added 20 points for the Lobos (29-3), who set a school record for wins in a season and extended their winning streak to 15.
It wasn’t the runaway that their fans anticipated as they packed the Thomas & Mack Center, celebrating New Mexico’s first top seed in a conference tournament since 1994.
The Lobos, who led by just three points with 4 1/2 minutes left, are playing for a high seed in the NCAA tournament instead of just trying to get into the field of 65 as they have in the past few years.
The Falcons (10-21) kept the pace in their favor and benefited from the Lobos’ 6 of 21 shooting from beyond the arc.
The Lobos, who haven’t lost since Jan. 9 and have won a record dozen games away from Albuquerque, will face the San Diego State-Colorado State winner in the next round Friday night.
Air Force, led by Tom Fow’s 17 points, trailed 48-47 with 12 1/2 minutes remaining but never managed to go ahead as New Mexico snapped a streak of four consecutive first-round losses in the MWC tournament, where it had advanced to Day 2 just twice in 10 years.
The Falcons pulled to 38-31 at halftime when Evan Washington sank an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer and then used an 8-0 run to trim their deficit to 48-47. Gary turned the ball over and then fouled Washington as he dunked at the other end, and Washington’s free throw made it a one-point game.
Hobson responded with a three-point play, but the Lobos never were able to quite shake the Falcons, who also gave them a hard-fought game in Albuquerque last month before falling 59-56.
The Lobos improved to 5-14 at the Thomas & Mack since the MWC tournament was first played in Las Vegas in 2000. One of those wins came against UNLV on Feb. 10.
The Lobos hit three quick 3-pointers at the start of the game, but that proved a bane for them as they kept firing from long range — nine of their first 12 shots were beyond the arc — and the Falcons used a 9-0 run to go ahead 13-12 before Hobson’s finger-roll basket ended the Lobos’ drought and sparked a 15-4 run by New Mexico.