New Mexico Lobos Mountain West Basketball – At San Diego State
Saturday: San Diego State 51, New Mexico 48
Thursday: 7 p.m. (MT) -- New Mexico vs. Fresno State/Air Force winner - Las Vegas
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.
Can we do it again? Can the New Mexico Lobos and the San Diego State Aztecs scratch their way into the Mountain West Tournament championship game in Las Vegas and knock each other around one more time?
“I hope to get another shot at them. I think our guys would like that,” said Lobo Coach Craig Neal. “It’s a bad pill to swallow. It’s the short end of the stick. It’s a bad deal.”
Yeah, the ending in San Diego wasn’t a happy ending for New Mexico – a 51-48 San Diego State win. However, it went down the way it should have gone down with the two best teams in the Mountain West taking turns throwing knockout blows with neither team willing to bite the canvas.
It was an exchange of heavyweight punches throughout 40 minutes of basketball. There were many Lobo blows that put the raucous Viejas Arena on their seats. There were Aztec blows that turned Viejas into an avalanche of emotions that the Aztecs fed off rallying from 16 points down to claim the 2014 MW title.
There is a memory from this that maybe the Lobos should carry with them into the Thomas & Mack – Aztecs cutting down championship nets. There are nets in Vegas, too.
“I told the guys, get your head up. You had an unbelievable season,” said Neal. “It was one of those games where they (refs) let us play and we didn’t adjust to it. We had a chance to win the game and we didn’t make enough plays.”
It was really a stunner for the Lobos. They simply dominated a huge stretch of the second half and had the Aztecs back on their heels and standing in a deep 41-25 hole with 12:05 to play. The score had been 26-25.
Then the Aztecs cranked it up. Then the Aztecs went into a nasty 1-3-1 zone. Then the Aztecs threw out their run. Then Viejas went nuts. It was an avalanche of Aztecs the Lobos could not stop.
“That was the difference,” said Neal of the 1-3-1 zone. “We knew they (Aztecs) were going to use it and we knew they were going to come. They came.
“We had our opportunities. I didn’t think some of our guys would play as badly as they did. It was a good opportunity and I feel bad for my kids. But for them to go 15-3 is a credit to them. But they didn’t get the job done. They are down right now.”
The Lobos, 24-6 overall, have a right to be down – for a while. Then get over it. You lost to the No. 10 team in the nation on their court; a team that was once No. 5. And you quickly have another chance to get up – in Vegas.
The Lobos enter the Mountain West Tournament as the No. 2 seed and the NCAA Tournament is on the other side of the Thomas & Mack. UNM opens the tourney at 7 p.m. (MT) on Thursday vs. the winner of Fresno State and Air Force.
“It’s just one of those things, but we have another season to go,” said Neal.
The Lobos were led in scoring by Cameron Bairstow with 20 points. Alex Kirk had 14 points and 11 boards. Kendall Williams scored seven and went 3-of-10 from the field, hitting a buzzer trey. Hugh Greenwood went 0-of-3 and the Lobo bench produced two points.
UNM shot 45.2 percent from the floor and SDSU shot 39.6 percent going 0-of-9 from 3-point range. UNM won the rebound battle 30-27. Xavier Thames had 23 points going 8-of-16 from the field. The Aztecs are 27-3 and finish 16-2 in the MW battle.
Coach Neal said he told his Lobos if they could have 12 or fewer turnovers, they would win. The Lobos had 16 with Wiliams turning it over five times and Cullen Neal four times. Bairstow had three turnovers.
In the second half, SDSU outscored UNM 20-14 in the paint, 16-2 off turnovers, 10-4 in fast-break points and 8-0 off the bench.
Second Half: San Diego State 31, New Mexico 22
The Aztecs came out of the half down 26-20 and quickly pulled to 26-25. Then the Lobos ran away – but didn’t hide. New Mexico smoothly powered into a 41-25 lead – 16 points – and the Aztecs were reeling on the ropes.
Then the Aztecs erupted – with defense and intensity and that 1-3-1 zone. And offense -- something the Aztecs don’t always have. They scored in transition. They scored off turnovers. They scored on drives. They scored inside. The Lobos were not scoring.
“We just couldn’t score,” said Neal. “Once they went zone, we stopped getting it inside, stopped looking." Bairstow and Kirk did not take a shot in the final 12 minutes.
At the 5:33 mark, the Aztecs rode a 17-1 run to bolt into a 42-42 tie. The Viejas Arena had gone absolutely nuts.
The Aztecs kept their fans happy. A steal and a layup put SDSU up 44-42. UNM’s Delaney finally quieted the roar with a baseline trey: 45-44 with 4:25 to go. Xavier Thames got the lead back for SDSU with a floating jumper from eight feet that rattled and rolled in: 46-45. The Lobos had a chance to regain the lead when Kirk was mauled under the glass and went to the line for two with 59.1 to play. He missed both free shots.
The Aztecs then got a break with 38 seconds to play. Cameron Bairstow was called for a phantom foul on JJ O’Brien standing past the top of the key looking at a confused SDSU offense. The Aztecs made one: 47-45.
UNM had the ball looking for a tie or the lead. The Lobos had several options on that possession. Get the ball inside to the Twin Towers. Try to get Williams to the line on a drive or a finish. Or launch the bomb.
Williams launched and missed. The Aztecs' Thames pushed his team up by four (49-45) at the free-throw line with nine seconds to play. That ended it. The Lobos scored only one field goal in the final 12 minutes until Williams threw in a long trey to beat the buzzer.
First Half: New Mexico 26, San Diego State 20
It was a really good half for the Lobos considering it wasn’t always a good half. They went more than eight minutes without scoring, survived a 12-0 SDSU run, and got only one field goal from Kendall Williams.
However, the Lobos took advantage of their Twin Towers – Bairstow/Kirk -- who combined for 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting to help UNM to the 26-20 halftime lead. The rest of the Lobos went 2-of-10 from the field; Williams 1-of-5.
Bairstow, who scored 26 on the Aztecs in The Pit, had 13 points including a buzzer-beating 18-foot jumper out of a spin move. The closed the half for New Mexico on a 15-to-2 run. Kirk led all board men in the half with six and UNM had a 14-10 edge on the glass. SDSU’s Thames had 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
The Aztecs opened the game in a good way to get Viejas rocking: a dunk. The Lobos came back and went into the first media break with a 9-6 lead. Bairstow had six points including a flat-footed power dunk.
Coach Neal pulled Delaney (two fouls) and Greenwood, two of his top defenders, to the bench. The Aztecs went up 11-9 off a Thames steal and pushed it to 14-9 at 9:22. UNM’s Williams was 0-4 from the field at that point. The Aztecs went up 16-9. SDSU was riding a 12-0 run and UNM had gone more than eight minutes without a score before Cullen Neal drove the middle for a layup at 7:44.
Bairstow and Kirk took over the middle the rest of the way in and Williams added a running jumper to help UNM to the six-point halftime lead.
Mountain West Tournament Schedule -- Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack
Wednesday’s first round -- all times MT
Game 1: 3 p.m. -- No. 8 Utah State vs. No. 9 Colorado State
Game 2: 5:30 p.m. -- No. 7 Fresno State vs. No. 10 Air Force
Game 3: 8 p.m. -- No. 6 Boise State vs. No. 11 San Jose State
Game 4: 1 p.m. -- No. 1 San Diego State vs. winner No. 8 Utah State/No. 9 CSU
Game 5: 3:30 p.m. -- No. 4 UNLV vs. No. 5 Wyoming
Game 6: 7 p.m. -- No. 2 New Mexico vs. winner No. 7 Fresno State/No. 10 Air Force
Game 7: 9:30 p.m. -- No. 3 Nevada vs. winner No. 6 Boise State/No. 11 San Jose State
Game 8: 7 p.m. -- Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner
Game 9: 9:30 p.m. Game 6 winners vs. Game 7 winner
Saturday’s championship -- Thomas & Mack Center
MW Championship: 4 p.m. -- Game 8 winners vs. Game 9 winner