MWC Tournament:

Demetrius Walker pushes New Mexico to a 79-64 victory over Air Force

Walker tosses in a career-high 19 points to spark Lobos

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

New Mexico guard Demetrius Walker grimaces after hitting the ground from a flagrant foul by Air Force during their Mountain West Conference Tournament game Thursday, March 8, 2012.

MWC Tournament - New Mexico v. Air Force

New Mexico guard Kendall Williams hangs on the rim after a dunk against Air Force during their Mountain West Conference Tournament game Thursday, March 8, 2012.  Williams incurred a technical foul for hanging on the rim. Launch slideshow »

The players coming off of the bench are one of the reasons why New Mexico coach Steve Alford feels so confident about his team’s chances at this week’s Mountain West Conference tournament.

The way Alford tells it, he can count on one Lobos reserve to provide a significant boost in each and every game. The only question is who will emerge on any given night.

In the quarterfinals against Air Force Thursday at the Thomas & Mack Center, it was sophomore guard Demetrius Walker playing that role. Walker set a career-high with 19 points in a 79-64 victory over the Falcons.

“I just wanted to come in and provide a spark, whether that’s offensively or defensively,” Walker said. “Tonight was offensively.”

New Mexico, the 2-seed in the tournament, got off to a somewhat sloppy start. The Lobos allowed a few open looks that translated into a 15-14 lead for the Falcons.

All of a sudden Alford checked Walker in and everything changed. Walker scored his first 11 points in three minutes during a 15-0 New Mexico run. He awed the pro-New Mexico crowd with acrobatic drives to the basket and a soft touch behind the three-point line.

Walker’s teammates were far less amazed. Sophomore guard Kendall Williams said the Arizona State transfer had come up big for the Lobos all year.

Fans just don’t always realize Walker’s impact, according to Williams, because it’s usually his defensive pressure that makes the biggest difference.

“He’s been doing it all year off the bench with balance,” Williams, who had 13 points in the victory, said. “It was his night and he hit a lot of shots.”

Six of Walker’s points came from the free-throw line, where New Mexico shot 31-for-37 as a team.

“We started emphasizing (getting to the line) a little bit more because we feel like those are some free points you need to get to,” Alford said. “If there’s been something that has been missing in our offense, it’s been the ability to get to the line consistently.”

Air Force helped New Mexico reach that objective. The Falcons swarmed Drew Gordon whenever he received the ball down low and made it a point to defend the Lobos star more physically.

It resulted in Gordon, who had 15 points and seven rebounds, going to the line frequently. He went 9-for-11 from the stripe.

“Our team is good at shooting free throws when it comes down to it and we concentrate,” Gordon said. “Air Force was trying to climb back in it the whole game, so it was something we really needed to concentrate on.”

New Mexico downed Air Force by a combined 69 points in two previous meetings, but the Falcons were determined to keep it respectable this time. The Lobos led 45-31 at halftime, but couldn’t create much separation in the second half.

Air Force kept answering and eventually trimmed the lead to nine with four minutes to play. Walker again came in to the game and made his presence felt.

He swished a three-point shot from the right wing to put the game out of reach for once and all.

“I’ve been trying to pick it up in practice,” Walker said. “My teammates have been picking it up as well. I feel like offensively and defensively, I’m getting better.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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