By Tim Korte: The Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE — How much does everyone at The Pit love Roman Martinez? Well, even the opposing coach was gushing about New Mexico’s Mr. Nice Guy.
Martinez added 19 points in his final home game and Darington Hobson added 20 points and 14 rebounds, leading No. 8 New Mexico to a 73-66 win over TCU on Wednesday night and the Lobos’ first outright conference title in 16 years.
It was a love fest for New Mexico’s only senior, with fans giving him a huge cheer during introductions, then chanting his name in the closing minutes. Finally, students rushed the court and lifted Martinez on their shoulders in a victory celebration.
Afterward, Martinez returned to the affection.
“It was something I’ll never forget,” he said, his neck ringed by a basketball net. “They were so loud several times during the game and again after the game. It’s truly a privilege to play here. We play for more than championships. We play for the state of New Mexico.”
Dairese Gary added 14 points and made four free throws in the final 30 seconds as the Lobos (28-3, 14-2 Mountain West) won their 14th straight game and clinched their first outright season title since winning the Western Athletic Conference in 1994.
New Mexico also tied a school record for most wins — a 28-5 mark set in 1995-96.
It marked a multitude of successes for third-year coach Steve Alford. But when asked which part of the party meant the most to him, Alford noted his co-captain would list the team’s accomplishments first.
“I’d say Ro, but I know who Ro is, and he’s definitely about the team first,” Alford said. “So what we’ve done as a team definitely goes to the front of the line. We’ve said from Year 1 that no player, no coach, is as important as the entire puzzle.”
“With that said, Ro’s as good as it gets,” he added.
Ronnie Moss led the Horned Frogs (13-17, 5-10) with 14 points while Edvinas Ruzgas and Zvonko Buljan each added 12 but TCU lost its fifth in a row to New Mexico.
The Lobos are getting every opponent’s best shot lately, with six of the past seven games turning into a dogfight down the stretch. New Mexico started slow, which Alford blamed on his team’s desire to perform well in the final home game for Martinez, as well as for their fans.
TCU led 29-23 late in the first half then stayed within striking distance in the second, despite consecutive 3-pointers by Martinez that put New Mexico up 62-51 with 6:20 remaining, and got within 67-64 with a minute to play when Keion Mitchem hit a 3-pointer.
But Martinez scored inside and, after TCU’s Greg Hill missed a long 3-point try, Gary began his march to the free throw line.
Even Horned Frogs coach Jim Christian couldn’t stop praising Martinez.
“Love him. Everybody wishes they had a guy like him,” he said. “He’s a role model for a lot of guys, on and off the court. But as a basketball player, he’s one of the guys, when the big shot needs to be made, the ball ends up in his hands.”
Hobson logged his 12th double-double of the season and seventh in the past eight games, making a strong argument to be the Mountain West’s player of the year, but it was Martinez’s night.
As the only senior on a team that was picked fifth in the conference back in the preseason, he has been the guts and glue for the Lobos.
“They picked us fifth two years in a row,” Martinez declared after taking the microphone for a postgame ceremony.
When Alford pulled Martinez out with 1.7 seconds to go, he left to a rousing cheer, then hugged his coaches and teammates as he worked his way down the bench.
“Ro Mar-ti-nez,” the crowd chanted.
At the final horn, cheering students rushed the court and lifted Martinez above the fray. Martinez held up a sign that proclaimed “Ro!” and held his index finger high as fans wearing “Ro Knows” T-shirts celebrated at his feet.
“This team took on the face and the heart of their senior leader,” Alford told fans, drawing a big cheer.
The Lobos also trotted out the Mountain West trophy and cut down the nets at The Pit. After sharing last season’s championship with BYU and Utah, they’re keeping this one all to themselves.
“Never done this before,” Martinez said. “It’s a great, great feeling.”