ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Front-running New Mexico was in big trouble against Air Force, the last-place team in the Mountain West Conference.
This must be a special season, all right. Somehow, the Lobos managed to win.
Darrington Hobson scored 17 points, including a putback with 16.9 seconds remaining, Dairese Gary made two free throws with 2.5 seconds left and New Mexico (No. 15 ESPN/USA Today, No. 12 AP) survived a season-low point total to beat the feisty Falcons 59-56 on Saturday.
"Big win," New Mexico's Roman Martinez said right after taking his seat in the interview room. "We should have lost that game but we found a way to win."
Yes, New Mexico (25-3, 11-2) is still winning. The Lobos logged plenty of important marks with this victory, their school-record 11th straight win in conference play and the school's best-ever record through 28 games.
How they won this one was even difficult for the Lobos to explain. Hobson struggled to remember how Gary threaded the pass to him.
"I don't know how he did it," Hobson said. "I don't know how I caught it, but it was a good play."
But it was not easy, not with Air Force (9-16, 1-11) using its methodical halfcourt offense to throw a wrench into the gears of one of the nation's hottest teams.
"I thought we controlled the game," Falcons coach Jeff Reynolds said.
They did, and they almost pulled off a stunning upset.
Grant Parker scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, including a layup with 27.8 seconds left that put the Falcons ahead 56-55. But Gary drove and found Hobson on New Mexico's ensuing possession, and a sellout crowd at The Pit exhaled a major sigh of relief.
Nobody wearing red expected the league's last-place team to take the leader to the wire, especially since the Falcons were coming off a 91-48 loss at BYU one week ago. Air Force has lost four straight and 11 of 12, but this one could have gone either way.
"There's a lot of people out there that have written our kids off," Reynolds said. "I think they got tired of hearing it."
The Falcons missed a chance to retake the lead after Hobson's basket. Avery Merriex drove and put up a roller that bounced off the rim. Michael Lyons, who scored 11 points, missed a follow-up.
"A loss is always tough," Merriex said. "I feel like you can learn some things. Last week when we went to BYU we weren't that focused. Coach really made a point of telling us we always have to be focused. That helped us play a little better this time."
After Gary was fouled and made both free throws, the Falcons were down to their final chance. Reynolds called a timeout to set up a play, but Hobson got his finger on the inbounds pass to deflect it harmlessly to the court as the horn went off.
"Just trying to make it hard for him to get it inbounds. I have long arms," Hobson said.
Air Force is the only opponent that doesn't get booed coming down the ramp at The Pit, but the Lobos, who came in averaging 77.7 points a game, were a little too gracious to their visitors. The Falcons led 14-10 and later 20-16 after Zach Bohannon's layup with 5:25 left.
New Mexico coach Steve Alford had cautioned during the week against playing at Air Force's pace, but that's exactly what happened.
"They're not always going to go as scripted," Alford said. "Sometimes, you've got to find a way to win."
New Mexico went 10 minutes without a field goal until Nate Garth's 3-pointer with 47 seconds left in the half ended a streak of eight straight misses from 3-point range, part of a 12-2 burst in the final 5 minutes of the half that put the Lobos up 28-22.
Tough as it was for the Lobos to grind it out, it could serve as a good lesson.
Alford said this win was reminiscent of New Mexico's 81-79 double-overtime victory last season at Colorado State, a game the Lobos trailed 62-57 with 13 seconds to go but tied on Daniel Faris' reverse layup just before the regulation buzzer.
"We started off sluggish," Martinez said. "It's about preparation. Every team's going to come after us and give us their best shot, so we need to prepare even harder."
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