LAS VEGAS -- New Mexico coach Steve Alford asked the seemingly impossible of Darington Hobson coming into the Mountain West Conference tournament, challenging the league's newcomer and player of the year to carry the team even more than he has all season.
Hobson delivered, scoring 28 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in an emphatic performance that allowed the Lobos to hold off scrappy Air Force 75-69 in the quarterfinals Thursday.
"He was dominant at both ends of the floor," said Alford, whose team snapped a four-year run of first-round flops in the MWC tournament. "I thought he made his presence known defensively. That was a big-time performance by the player of the year. We needed that today."
Did they ever.
The Lobos (29-3), who set a school record for wins in a season and extended their winning streak to 15, misfired from long-range behind an uncharacteristic 3-for-11 performance by Roman Martinez and again got all they could handle from the Falcons (10-21), who lost 59-56 at the Pit on Feb. 20.
"When you get in [the postseason], you need the players of the year to elevate, and I thought he did that today," Alford said.
Hobson was 9 of 13 from the floor and 9 of 11 from the free throw line. He also had three steals and two assists.
"Man, he's an excellent player," Air Force guard Evan Washington said. "He can knock down the outside shot if you lay off him. He can drive left to his strong hand -- or right. It's a tough task to take on when you have to defend him 1-on-1.
"He's also an excellent offensive rebounder," Washington said. "Many times in the games, he made two or three stick-backs right there because he's very long. That also gives him an advantage on the defensive end."
Dairese Gary, the Lobos' pinballing point guard, added 20 points despite banging his right knee two minutes into the game.
"Dairese just does what he does. He didn't stop, he didn't quit," Alford said. "He is sore right now, so we got to get him a lot of treatment and rest before we get into competition tomorrow. But I know Dairese will be in there. Dairese is that way. He's played banged up that way most of the year because he throws his body around every game.
"He's just got to get a lot of rest and our trainer has to earn some money in the next 20 hours to get him ready."
The Lobos, who haven't lost since Jan. 9 and have won a record dozen games away from Albuquerque, will face San Diego State in the next round Friday night.
Gary said he'd be there.
He also brushed off the difficult time the Lobos had putting away the Falcons.
"The first game is always a hard game," Gary said.
Indeed, their fans who packed the Thomas & Mack Center, celebrating New Mexico's first top seed in a conference tournament since 1994, were on the edge of their seats until the final buzzer.
"We came out, were a little bit uptight in the beginning of the game," Hobson said.
Maybe it was rust, maybe it was pressure.
"Well, we haven't played in a while," Martinez said. "I think we got all the jitters out in the first game."
Hobson said the nerves will be gone Friday night.
"Tomorrow I think we'll come out a lot more loose and have a lot more confidence," he said.
The Falcons kept the pace in their favor and when the Lobos did manage to push the tempo, Air Force played that style well, too. And the Falcons benefited from the Lobos' 6 of 21 shooting from beyond the arc.
The Falcons, led by Tom Fow's 17 points, pulled to 38-31 at halftime when Washington sank an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer and then used an 8-0 run to trim its deficit to 48-47 with 12 1/2 minutes remaining.
The Lobos never seemed to let the pressure of another close game or the possibility of another first-round failure get to them as they improved to 12-0 this season in games decided by six or fewer points.
"This team, they're very poised. They just believe they're going to win, whether it's a tight game or a runaway," Alford said. "They just believe in themselves. Coaches believe in them. There's a lot of trust there."