New Mexico Lobos Mountain West Basketball – In The Pit
Saturday: New Mexico 58, San Diego State 44
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.
A Mountain West championship might not have been claimed Saturday night in The Pit – the Aztecs will get their West Coast rematch -- but a Lobos’ name was firmly stamped on the Player of The Year trophy.
UNM’s seemingly unstoppable Cameron Bairstow ripped through one of the nation’s premier defense for 26 points and sparked New Mexico to a 58-44 Mountain West victory over the No. 6 ranked San Diego State Aztecs.
“I got the best power forward in the country playing for us in Cameron Bairstow,” said Lobo coach Craig Neal.
“I don’t’ think of that stuff,” Bairstow said of the MW Player of the Year award. “It’s just an award-type of thing. It’s not something that matters to me. It’s more about the team winning a conference championship. Honestly, it was never a goal of mine. To me, it doesn’t really matter.”
Bairstow’s effort and points did help UNM’s bid to defend its MW title. The win pulled New Mexico (21-5, 12-2) into a tie for the top spot in the MW standings – a race that might be decided March 8 on the Aztecs’ floor. For sure, the Aztecs will have a lot to make up for – a lot to prove -- when New Mexico visits Viejas Arena.
Game one was no contest. It was a Lobo beat down for at least one obvious reason: the Lobos can be outstanding on both ends of the court. Saturday in The Pit, the Aztecs were turned into a one dimensional team by New Mexico’s outstanding balance. The Aztecs ended shooting 32.3 percent from the floor.
“That’s what a Pit game is about,” said Neal. “You have to win those games if you want to be relevant and we want to be really relevant.”
As a fan of Lobos, it was beautiful. As a fan of basketball, it wasn’t very exciting. This was like a first-round knockout. At one point, UNM led 50-26 and was shooting better than 65 percent in the half. The Lobos ended up shooting 50 percent for the game and won the board battle 36-34 after being down seven rebounds at the half, 24-17.
“I knew it was coming,” said Neal. “It was a win I know they wanted; a win I wanted. I thought the difference tonight was our defense. I wanted to get them (SDSU) in a half-court game. We wanted to give them space. We wanted them to make jump shots over us.”
The Aztecs can be deadly on the dribble drive. Not so much with jumpers. At one point in the second half, SDSU was down 21 points and shooting 22 percent from the floor. Xavier Thames, another front runner for POY honors, went 3-of-15 from the floor scoring seven points. JJ O’Brien went 4-of-12. SDSU only had one player in double figures: Winston Sheppard with 10 points. The Aztecs finished with four assists.
“It was just a big win,” said Neal. “I wanted that for those guys (Lobos) because those guys deserve it. Our defense was terrific tonight. We were getting good shots.”
Said Bairstow: “We knew what was on the line and what the game meant to us.”
Bairstow added nine boards to his POY resume and Kendall Williams had 10 points, seven assists and a single turnover. “Kendall Williams was terrific,” said Neal. “He had the ball a lot because of their pressure.
“I think we are really, really tough minded. I have tough minded kids. They haven’t won championships before because they aren’t tough minded. I knew it was going to a war. I knew this was going to be a tough one.”
The game was tough physically because both teams play hard and determined. The refs let these MW heavyweights go at it, too. The Aztecs shot three free throws and UNM shot six.
“It was tough. It was really tough,” said UNM’s Hugh Greenwood. “It’s always a grind between us two teams. I kind of like that stuff. I enjoyed myself tonight. It was fun, but it definitely was a different level (of physicality).”
“II was huge (win), but we know we have more games ahead of us and we still have to go to their place. Things are coming together, but we don’t want to peak too early.”
Don’t tell the Aztecs that. The Aztecs probably are hoping they saw the Lobos’ peak Saturday night in The Pit.
Second Half: New Mexico 29, San Diego State 22
The Pit exploded early: after a Williams’ trey that made it 36-24; after a Greenwood layup that made it 38-24; after Steve Fisher dashed to the edge of the Bob King Floor to call for a timeout. Down 14 in The Pit, the Aztecs needed to change things. They needed to get the Lobos off their roll. They need to hit some shots, make some stops.
At the 14:58 media break, a Williams’ trey made it 41-26. SDSU was now down 15. You could almost hear them dropping out of the Top Ten. At the 11:42 stop, UNM was up 47-26. Probably, the game was over. Could the Aztecs even score 47 points before the gun sounded?
UNM was shooting 63.6 percent at that point in the second half. SDSU was shooting 22.2 percent. The Aztecs had made two field goals almost halfway into the half.
The Lobos’ domination almost reached the absurd levels. Cullen Neal banked in a long 3-pointer as the shot clock ticked down. Bairstow popped a 15-footer. It was 52-29.
“Tonight, I felt good with it (jump shot),” said Bairstow. “I kept going with it down the stretch. It worked out well.”
The Aztecs made a little run and used some Lobo turnovers to scratch to 52-35 with 7:51 to play. Coach Neal called time to settle the troops, but it was just a small bump in the road. UNM was up 17 points. They were still on cruise drive heading toward their 21st win. The Aztecs fell to 23-3 and 12-2
At the 7:02 media stop, a Greenwood O-board and a reverse flip made it 54-35. SDSU had warmed up to 35.3 percent shooting, but UNM was still sizzling at 62.5 percent. The Aztecs made a few of those shots produced by desperation while the Lobos were strolling in for the win. It made things on the scoreboard look better for the Aztecs, but not on the court.
First Half: New Mexico 29, San Diego State 22
It was an intense opening. It had that electric pulse formed from the nervous energy of thousands of fans anticipating blows from two great opponents. It had the feel of a heavyweight championship fight. It was perfect.
It was a good start for the Lobos, too. Early, the Lobos had the better offense – and the better defense. It was Lobos making shots and Aztecs missing shots. At 10:34, a Bairstow drive put UNM up 18-10 and had SDSU Coach Steve Fisher on his feet begging for a 30-second huddle.
Coach Neal went to his bench. It produced. Cullen Neal scored on a drive and then banged in a trey. UNM was up 23-12. At the 7:02 break, it was 23-14. The Aztecs problem was obvious. They started getting some stops, but they were having trouble scoring. Thames, hitting the bottom of the rim early, had quit shooting. Still, the Aztecs chipped it to 23-16 at the 3:34 media stop. The Aztecs chipped some more: 23-20.
Thames finally banked one off the backboard – didn’t call it – but missed again on SDSU’s next possession that led to a Kirk dunk in transition. Williams scored on a drive: 29-22. That was it for the half.
The Lobos shot 48.1 percent from the floor to 30.6 for SDSU. Thames was 1-of-9 and O’Brien was 1-of-8. UNM lost the board battle 25-17. The Aztecs had 13 offensive boards. SDSU had two assists in the half. The Aztecs got off 36 shots in the half to 27 for UNM.