Stevens: Lobos are 3-Peat MW Champions
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  03/15/2014

New Mexico Lobos -- Champions of Reese’s Mountain West Tournament

Las Vegas, Nevada – Thomas & Mack Center

Saturday: #20 New Mexico 64; #8/7 San Diego State 58

By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.

Lobo Coach Craig Neal has his first championship ring as New Mexico's head man. His New Mexico Lobos also have some Mountain West jewerly.

And senior Cameron Bairstow has a MVP trophy. 

“It was very special to me,” Neal said of his first title as a head coach. “I’ve told my guys that they’ll  always be my favorite team because they were my first team."

The 27-6 New Mexico Lobos defeated San Diego State 64-58 Saturday afternoon in the drama-packed championship game of the Mountain West Tournament to win the rubber match between the top two teams in the league. 

“The two best teams definitely were playing tonight,” said UNM's Alex Kirk.  “I hope San Diego State has a bunch of success going forward.”'

UNM's Kendall Williams launched in a monster trey with 24.4 seconds left to put the Lobos up 62-57 and UNM rode that basket to its third consecutive MW tournament title. 

“I have seen Williams make deep threes against a lot of people,” said SDSU Coach Steve Fisher.  “He has a lot of moxie.  It was a long, hard shot.  I was hoping that one wouldn’t go in.” 

Said Williams: “Sometimes you have to take those big-time shots."

It was a dramatic win for the Lobos, who were up 56-49 with 2:34 to play and down 57-56 about one minute later.  UNM rallied for the win and the title with Williams hitting his trey with 24.4 seconds to play and five seconds on the shot clock.  Lobo Cameron Bairstow set the stage for that dramatic bomb with a drive and a free throw that pushed UNM up 59-57. 

“It’s hard to beat a great team three times and that’s that they are, a great team,” said Bairstow of losing to the Aztecs in San Diego..   “Fortunately, we were able to close it out at the end.”

Williams and Kirk joined Bairstow on the MW All-Tournament team. 

“It wasn’t about proving a point. You have to understand that’s it’s all about team success,” said Bairstow on grabbing the tourney MVP award after losing out to SDSU's Xavier Thames for MW Player of the Year honors. 

The win hands the Lobos an automatic bid into the 2014 NCAA Championships.  UNM will learn its seed, opponent and game site on Sunday. The No. 8/7-ranked SDSU Aztecs (29-4) appear to be a lock for an at-large bid. 

“We understand that we have more basketball to play,” said Bairstow.

Said SDSU's Fisher: "It’s fun when you win. It’s not fun when you don’t’ win. We have two really good programs, not just teams, that are used to winning and expect to win.  I think there is mutual respect, but for 40 minutes you don’t like each other. 

"To a man in our locker room, we are hopeful that, a week from Sunday, both of us are still playing." 

The ending was a thriller as the Aztecs stormed back from that 56-49 deficit by packaging a follow shot and a Xavier Thames’ trey around an empty Lobo possession (shot-clock violation).  It was 56-54 with 1:26 to the finish line.  The swarming Aztecs got a quick steal on a UNM in-bounce play, a dunk, and a free throw. Amazingly, the Aztecs now had a 57-56 lead. 

But not for long.

It was the Lobos’ turn to strike a hard blow.  Bairstow finished on a drive and added a free throw.  The Lobos were up 59-57 with 1:15 to play.   SDSU’s Dwayne Polee had a nice look on a drive, but missed.  UNM then worked down the clock and Williams launched a long bomb over the outstretched hand of Polee.  The shot rolled in.

He's a great player and he hit a great shot," said Polee. "There was nothing I could do."

Said Neal: "Kendall hit a shot."

Bairstow mopped up the win with two free throws. 

 “We just didn’t quite have enough to finish,” said Fisher, who said his team’s next goal is to win their first-round NCAA game.  "We have a lot to look forward to. I would hope that we would be a top-four seed."

The Lobos got 17 points and nine boards from Bairstow, who went 11-of-14 from the line.  UNM went 22-of-27 as a team. SDSU went 13-of-22.  There were 41 fouls called.

“Bairstow is the real deal,” said Neal.  “I think he will be an All-American selection and he deserves it. My kids have the hearts of a champion."

The Lobos also have a championship. 

Williams added 16 points going 6-of-6 from the line and Kirk had eight points and 11 boards.  UNM won the glass war 38-to-31.  UNM had 15 turnovers to seven for SDSU.  The Lobos shot 40.9 percent from the floor and SDSU shot 35.7 percent in both halves. 

Thames led the Aztecs with 15 points, Polee had 14 points and Winston Shepard had 13 points.

There really wasn’t any drama awaiting Lobos or Aztecs on Selection Sunday, but there will be some anticipation for the 4 p.m. (MT) bracket unveiling on CBS Sports.    Who and where will the Lobos play as what seed? 

“It’s all about seeding, all about the draw,” said Neal.  “I have a pretty good basketball team.”

Said Williams:  “There are a lot of emotions going on right now.  We are going to really enjoy this today and then wake up tomorrow and get ready for what we deem to be unfinished business.”

The top four teams in the NCAA bracket could be Florida, Villanova, Arizona and Wichita State. But what seed will the top Mountain West teams grab? 

The Lobos of 2013 were slapped out of the NCAA bracket last March by Harvard. But this is now the “Noodles’ Era” of Lobo basketball.  Already, there was a good change.  Coach Neal did not come to the post-game media conference with a championship net draped over his neck.

“I’m Craig,” he said. “I don’t have the net around my neck.”

Of course, there is something else hanging out there that Neal and his Lobos and a whole state of Lobos are looking forward to:  UNM’s first berth ever in a Sweet 16.