LAS VEGAS, Nev. - An unlikely star was replaced by an unlikely hero and with the help of the expected stalwarts, the University of New Mexico is playing again Friday in the Mountain West Conference Tournament.
UNM beat Colorado State 67-61 in the first round of the MWC Tournament and will play Brigham Young at 7 p.m. MST on Friday in the tournament semifinals.
A.J. Hardeman had one of the best games of his career as a Lobo. Not only did he have 10 points and nine rebounds, he guarded CSU star Andy Ogide. On sheer effort and determination, he had an outstanding game.
Hardeman had six offensive rebounds, which helped make up for poor shooting by the Lobos. New Mexico shot only 39.3 percent for the game.
"If you're not going to shoot the ball well, it's good to get offensive rebounds,'' Alford noted. "A.J. is working harder. He is giving us great effort. He was a huge reason why we won tonight. ''
But with two minutes left in the game, Hardeman fouled out. Seldom-used Cameron Bairstow of Australia was sent in, and expectations for him were not high. But Bairstow hit a key basket to give New Mexico a four-point lead with 57 seconds on the clock.
"I really didn't have any options except for Cameron,'' said UNM's Drew Gordon who made the pass. "That was huge for us. He just knocked it down. He shoots that shot all day in practice.''
The Lobos and Rams had split their two regular-season games with each winning at home. And this one was close throughout. New Mexico led by eight points in the second half after CSU led by five in the first half.
Gordon and freshman Kendall Williams had impressive games. Gordon had 13 points and 13 rebounds while Williams had 16 points by hitting 4 of 5 from the floor and all six of his free throws.
"Gordon is just a rebounding maniac,'' CSU coach Tim Miles said.
But the hustle reward definitely goes to Dairese Gary. The only senior on the team, Gary had a bad shooting night, hitting only 3 of 11. But twice he dove on the floor for loose balls and came up with it both times, inspiring his teammates.
"I was determined,'' Gary explained. "Coach talked about it, that the 50/50 balls needed to be ours.''