With 47 seconds left in the game, the New Mexico Lobos clawed their way to within a single possession, 63-60, after freshman Cameron Bairstow nailed a three-point shot.
All dreams of an NCAA Tournament berth for CSU then rested on free throw shooting and defense.
The Rams got both in the final minute to hold off New Mexico, 68-62, on Saturday night in front of 6,425 orange-clad fans.
The win was the Rams’ first over the Lobos in eight tries.
CSU’s (17-7, 7-3 MWC) nail biting victory was sealed thanks to sophomores Dorian Green and Jesse Carr hitting on 5-of-6 free throws in the closing possessions and a steal by Pierce Hornung with just 8 seconds remaining.
The win extends the Rams’ lead over New Mexico (17-8, 5-5 MWC) for third place in the Mountain West Conference.
“It feels great. It’s the first time I’ve ever beat them,” said senior guard Adam Nigon. “They’re pretty cocky, so it feels good to finally get those guys.”
It looked as though CSU would cruise past the Lobos for most of the game, leading by as many as 18 points in the second half.
Defense set the tone in the first half, holding New Mexico to 31 percent shooting and just 22 points.
Just as things seemed in hand for the Rams, New Mexico went to the offensive glass with regularity, getting multiple chances and shooting 48 percent in the second half.
“They started to spread us out, screening and rolling and putting four or five out on the perimeter,” said Andy Ogide, who finished with 17 points. “It hurt us defensively, but we found a way to win the game.”
The Lobos pulled in 13 offensive rebounds for 10 second-chance points and outscored the Rams 40-32 in the second half.
CSU coach Tim Miles has seen his team miss the knockout punch before.
“We don’t have a great killer instinct,” Miles said. “We get punched and then say, ‘Oh, we better play good again,’ and that’s kind of the nature of these guys. They’re really good, nice people.”
Sophomore Greg Smith was placed in the starting lineup for the fourth time in his career and produced 14 points and 2 assists in 32 minutes.
“I just tried to be aggressive,” Smith said. “I made some shots and got in some pretty good positions, so I’m going to try to carry it through to TCU.”
The Rams’ offense was a balanced attack, getting nine different players in the scoring column, with 44 of the team’s 68 points coming from Ogide, Smith and Nigon.
As the conference schedule nears its end, CSU must continue to beat lower ranked conference opponents to hold on to third place.
Big games remaining include a home matchup with contending UNLV on Feb. 19 and road battles with co-conference leaders Brigham Young and San Diego State.
“I tell the guys ‘This is the time of your life, enjoy it’,” Miles said. “This has been a long time coming for CSU.”
Assistant Sports Editor Cris Tiller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org._