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No. 21 New Mexico enjoys a senior night party at Air Force's expense

March 5, 2014 Updated: March 5, 2014 at 10:43 pm
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Air Force's DeLovell Earls (21) powers his way to a basket during the first half guarded by New Mexico's Alex Kirk (53) and Merv Lindsay (22) of an NCAA college basketball game at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Juan Antonio Labreche)

ALBUQUERQUE - Cameron Bairstow hit his final 3-pointer at The Pit and the New Mexico senior raised both arms, stuck out his tongue and basked in the delirium of a frenzied, sold-out crowd.

Moments later, it was even louder when senior walk-on Chris Perez scored his first two points of the season, fulfilling the game-long pleas of the crowd.

This was what Air Force walked into on Wednesday night in a 80-52 loss at the charged home of the No. 21 Lobos.

This was a basketball party, with New Mexico playing to its crowd like the Harlem Globetrotters. Or course, that casts Air Force in the role of the lowly Washington Generals, and the Falcons reluctantly stayed in character by committing 17 turnovers and shooting 34.5 percent.

"It's (lousy)," point guard Tre' Coggins said, not mincing words about being on the opposite side of a night like this.

New Mexico (24-5, 15-2 Mountain West) will face No. 10 San Diego State on Saturday for a shot at the conference title. They played every bit like an elite member of the league in this one, scoring 46 points in the second half. Bairstow made 8-of-12 shots, scoring 21 points. Alex Kirk blocked four shots. Senior Kendall Williams had 13 points, three assists and two steals.

There were no weaknesses; and Air Force (11-17, 5-12) had no chance.

"It's a tough time, going down that ramp for the last time," coach Craig Neal said of his three seniors.

"I think we had some jitters to start. . I thought our guys played an excellent second half and got some momentum going."

Perhaps it was a bit of revenge, considering the perfect send-off the Falcons gave their five seniors a year ago with a buzzer-beating victory over the Lobos at Clune Arena.

But this game, which New Mexico controlled throughout, did more than demoralize Air Force.

It served as a reminder.

"We've had that feeling like them before," said Justin Hammonds, who scored 11 points off the bench to go with eight rebounds. "We know what it's like to be out there playing and having a good time. We want to get back to that feeling and we know we can."

Air Force's shooting again abandoned the team. The team's top outside shooters - Coggins, Marek Olesinski and Max Yon - combined to go 3-of-19 from 3-point range.

There's no hiding from the fact that this season is in a downward spiral, but that doesn't mean the Falcons are ready to accept that.

"It doesn't look too good from that performance," Hammonds said, "but we haven't quit and we won't quit."

With Utah State and Colorado State both winning Wednesday, Air Force is guaranteed to enter next week's conference tournament seeded 10th out of 11. But first comes Saturday's home game against Boise State, and coach Dave Pilipovich said that game carries no less significance now than it would have under any other circumstance.

"We're not satisfied with 11-win seasons at Air Force," Pilipovich said.

"We want more. We're not riding this thing out to the end; we're building this thing every day. Tomorrow is another build day. Friday's a build day. Saturday's a build day. We're not coaching this thing to finish it and check off the calendar. We're not satisfied with where we're at, and nothing will turn that around except hard work and that's what we're going to do."

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