10:00 PM ET, March 12, 2005
Pepsi Center, Denver, CO
DENVER (AP) -- The selection committee can stop worrying about New Mexico. A lot of NCAA Tournament teams out there might want to start, though.
The Lobos made their invitation to the NCAAs a formality Saturday night, getting 28 points, 11 rebounds and four straight clutch free throws from Danny Granger in a 60-56 victory over No. 15 Utah in the Mountain West Conference championship game.
"I think we are worthy of maybe a higher seed than they will give us," Granger said of the committee members who will put out the brackets Sunday. "Because we are one of the best teams in the country right now."
Playing as though their season was at stake -- even though it probably wasn't by this point -- the second-seeded Lobos (26-6) jumped on Andrew Bogut and the top-seeded Utes (27-5) early and kept them an arm's distance away most of the way en route to their ninth straight win.
And when Bogut (19 points, 16 rebounds) triggered a 9-2 run that gave the Utes a 49-48 lead with 3:35 left -- their first since midway through the first half -- New Mexico responded. Alfred Neale slammed home a miss for a 50-49 lead. David Chiotti made a move that felled Bogut and led to an easy layup.
After two Utah free throws made it 52-51, Granger made two huge baskets, forcing a shot over a defender under the basket for one score, then dribbling to the baseline and shaking loose from defender Marc Jackson for an open 15 footer that he buried for a 56-51 lead.
Bogut responded with a 3-pointer with 21 seconds left, but Granger countered by sinking four free throws down the stretch to keep it a two-possession game.
"He does everything but the Allen Iverson crossover," coach Ritchie McKay said of his multitalented senior.
When the buzzer sounded, center Bambale Osby sprinted off the bench and did two handsprings -- cheerleader style -- then the Lobos went into the crowd to celebrate along with the thousands who followed them up Interstate 25 to watch them earn their first NCAA bid since 1999.
The win capped off quite a day for the Lobos. It began when New Mexico beat Utah for the women's championship.
For the men, it was the 12th win over the last 13 games. Two of those wins have come against Utah, the league's regular-season champ, which now must wait for an at-large bid to make its fourth straight trip to the NCAAs.
"We find out tomorrow if we are one of the 65," Utes coach Ray Giacoletti said. "We see if our name comes up. And hopefully, we've got a bad taste in our mouth."
The Lobos, meanwhile, celebrated their first conference tourney title since 1996 -- when Dave Bliss was coach and they played in the Western Athletic Conference.
They were on the tournament bubble because of their low RPI rating (85th) and ultra-weak strength of schedule (298), but have more than put to rest all those misgivings over a torrid stretch that began with a win over UNLV at The Pit on Jan. 29.
McKay conceded that without the win, he would have been sweating out the dozens of combinations that would or wouldn't result in a trip to the tourney.
"I was planning to go home and watch Pacific-Utah State tonight," he said. "I don't have to watch that one anymore."
Granger scored 18 of his points in the first half and well outplayed Bogut, who was "held" to just 19 points by a defense that fronted him with Chiotti, then brought help from the back-side forward.
"They crowded him on every swing of the ball," Utah guard Tim Drisdom said.
Despite that success, the Lobos couldn't build their lead into double digits, and when the Utes shut down Granger through most of the second half, it was clear this one would come down to the wire.
It did -- but it was Granger, not Bogut, who wound up holding the trophy and being named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
The Lobos, who were serenaded by chants of "Never Rated!" from Utah fans in the pregame warmups, stayed around to cut down the nets. By then, it was Lobo fans doing the chanting -- shouting "Overrated!" and "NIT!" to the Utes, who were in their locker while Granger, McKay and the rest were on the ladder with the scissors.
"I know our schedule was criticized, but we played elite teams," McKay said. "We played Wake Forest. We played Utah three times. We'll walk into whatever place we get placed, and we'll play with confidence."
Team Stat Comparison
|FG Made-Attempted||22-49 (.449)||21-50 (.420)|
|3P Made-Attempted||7-18 (.389)||8-21 (.381)|
|FT Made-Attempted||9-10 (.900)||6-8 (.750)|
|Fouls (Tech/Flagrant)||14 (0/0)||15 (0/0)|