Alford has surging New Mexico playing tough Print
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Tuesday, 08 January 2008 08:35
NCAAB Headline News


 ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Steve Alford wanted toughness. He got it last week on the road from his surging New Mexico squad.
The Lobos (14-2, 1-0 Mountain West) completed a three-game road sweep by grinding out two overtime wins, erasing a 16-point deficit in one. They've won seven straight, putting New Mexico one victory shy of last season's win total.
The consecutive overtime road wins marked a first-ever feat for New Mexico, which beat UTEP 86-85 on Jan. 2 in a back-and-forth contest and opened Mountain West play with a 99-92 double-overtime win at Wyoming on Saturday.
``That's about as good as it gets,'' Alford said.
New Mexico erased a 48-32 halftime deficit to snap a 10-game losing streak in Laramie, Wyo., dating to 1995. The Lobos made a season-high 14 3-pointers, hitting 11-of-21 after trailing 48-32 at the break.
``New Mexico is a very good basketball team,'' Wyoming coach Heath Schroyer said.
Along with a 79-69 victory at Hawaii on Dec. 27, it was the first time the Lobos won three straight uninterrupted road games - no home dates in between - since 1989.
Improving the team's physical and mental toughness has been a theme for Alford since he arrived last spring, but the coach believes there's room for improvement going into Saturday's home game against San Diego State.
``We're getting better. We're not there yet, but I think our team understands,'' Alford said. ``It helps when you're down 16 at Wyoming or down at UTEP and you find ways to win. It's not just about making shots or doing things defensively. It's mental toughness.''
Former coach Ritchie McKay was fired after going 15-17 last season, clearing the way for Alford's arrival after eight years at Iowa. One criticism that dogged McKay was an 8-43 road record in his five seasons.
Under Alford, the Lobos are 4-2 on the road with losses at Mississippi and New Mexico State.
``We've played awfully good basketball,'' Alford said. ``We lost two - one to New Mexico State, which we avenged at home, and one to an undefeated Top 25 team. What I'm excited about is this group won 15 all last year and we're at 14 already.''
After the UTEP win, standout J.R. Giddens was asked if last year's New Mexico team could have outlasted a gritty opponent away from The Pit.
``We would have probably crumbled like a cookie without milk, and that would have been really sad,'' Giddens said.
The Kansas transfer was smiling when he said that, but Giddens had every reason to feel giddy after setting career highs with 19 rebounds and seven assists while scoring 20 points in 43 minutes.
At Wyoming, Giddens had 16 points, eight rebounds, five assists and two blocked shots. He scored 11 points in the final 1:19 of regulation and the two overtimes, hitting a 3-pointer that tied it at 71 near the end of the second half.
``He's playing at a very high level,'' Alford said. ``He's doing a lot of good things, on defense, rebounding, on the dribble-drive creating opportunities for teammates, and he's also scoring the ball. He is very versatile.''
But it's hardly a one-man show.
Chad Toppert had 18 points and seven rebounds in each overtime win, and he's shooting a remarkable 48.3 percent (43-of-89) from 3-point range. Center Daniel Faris scored 13 points at Wyoming, his fifth straight game in double figures.
Point guard Jamaal Smith, a senior who accepted a move to the bench with the emergence of freshman Dairese Gary, scored 22 of his career-high 24 points against Wyoming after halftime. Smith made three 3-pointers and shot 9-of-10 on free throws.
``I was telling Coach Schroyer after the game that Jamaal hadn't led us in scoring yet,'' Alford said. ``It's been somebody different every game who makes a big play, either offensively or defensively. Somebody gets 18 or 19 rebounds or scores 20.''
Alford wasn't sure what to expect when he took over New Mexico's program but praised his team for embracing the new coaching staff's vision. He said Giddens, Smith and other seniors have helped their teammates buy in.
``The guys are doing a really good job of listening and following directions,'' Alford said. ``They're doing a good job of playing together as a team. You really have to give the players all the credit.''
 

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