New Mexico Lobos At The Reese’s Mountain West Tournament
March 12-15 – Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center
Friday: New Mexico 70, Boise State 67; San Diego State 59, UNLV 51
Saturday: 4 p.m. (MT) – New Mexico vs. San Diego State
By Richard Stevens – Senior Writer/GoLobos.com.
It’s exactly how it should be. It’s a Mountain West ending void of plot twists or mystery and not spoiled by upsets or Cinderellas chasing a dream. No Rebels, no Broncos, but a fistful of Lobos and San Diego State Aztecs.
The Boise State Broncos did their best to pull on some glass slippers and keep dancing, but they never could pull away a lead the New Mexico Lobos held from the first basket. UNM outmuscled and outlasted the long-shot shooting Broncos 70-67 Friday night in the Las Vegas Thomas & Mack in front of 15,135. The No. 20-ranked Lobos get their well-deserved rubber match with No. 8 San Diego State.
“Get them some sleep and push breakfast back a little bit,” said Lobo Coach Craig Neal on his immediate strategy for the 4 p.m. (MT) championship game on Saturday with SDSU.
“We knew it was going to be a tough battle (with Boise). “We just couldn’t get our rhythm, but I thought our guys hung tough.”
The Lobos also stayed up late. The game ended shortly before midnight on a New Mexico clock and shortly before 11 p.m. in Vegas. It wasn’t exactly the kind of wrestling match, er, basketball game that the Lobos probably needed prior to facing the Aztecs’ haunting, pressing defense.
“It was a very hard fought game,” said Neal. “It was a very physical, very intense, very competitive game.”
Said UNM’s Alex Kirk: “We knew that Boise was going to come out. They wanted that automatic bid to the (NCAA) Tournament.
The Broncos also tried to push the game into overtime, but New Mexico kept making just enough baskets and plays to hold the lead. New Mexico was led in scoring by Cameron Bairstow with 23 points going 15-of-18 from the free-throw line.
“We just kept hacking Bairstow,” said Boise’s Jeff Elorriaga. “New Mexico is so big it’s just hard to keep banging and banging with them.”
Said Boise Coach Leon Rice: "You're e not guarding Cameron Bairstow by yourself, one person, I don’t care who (Lobos) play.”
The Lobos also got 16 points from Kendall Williams and 14 from Deshawn Delaney. Kirk had nine points and 11 boards. Hugh Greenwood had eight points, six rebounds and three assists. Derrick Marks led Boise State with 20 points and Thomas Bropleh, ejected with 7:15 to play, finished with 16 points. The Broncos got 20 points off their bench and Neal's bench failed to reach the scoreboard.
UNM shot 36 free throws to 17 for Boise. “When they make more free throws than what we attempt, that’ a big factor,” said Boise State Coach Leon Rice, who picked up his first career technical during the game. UNM went 22-of-36 from the line and Boise State went 11-of-17.
The Aztecs defensed their way into the title game earlier on Friday with a 59-51 win over the home team, UNLV. Xavier Thames, the MW Player of the Year, had 17 points and six assists. "We came here to win three games," said SDSU Coach Steve Fisher tossing out the Aztecs' challenge.
That sets up a classic Vegas finale. It’s the best of the best, heavyweight vs. heavyweight, New Mexico vs. San Diego State on a neutral court, if you can possibly believe that the Lobo-red Thomas & Mack is really anything other than the Lobos’ home away from home.
Its Pit West and that probably will be a factor, but maybe not that much of a factor simply because the Lobos don’t need much help for spark or motivation when it comes to Aztecs. The Lobos have some unfinished business. The Lobos have a bad taste in their mouths.
“We want a rematch and the City of Albuquerque wants a rematch,” said Greenwood. ”We are looking forward to getting that shot. We are more than ready for the 1-3-1. We’ve made the adjustments and we are looking forward to it.”
New Mexico has lots of nasty to take at the Aztecs and part of that is the Aztecs came to Las Vegas as the Mountain West regular-season champions. They earned that crown scratching out of a a 16-point hole behind a 1-3-1 zone that pushed them past the Lobos in the Viejas. The Aztecs already have their championship banner and their championship rings.
The Lobos want some Mountain West bling, too. They get that chance thanks to finding ways to hold off the Broncos’ gutsy charge.
The Lobos got two huge buckets in the final two minutes from Williams, a trey, and a snappy, turnaround, baseline jumper by Bairstow with 44 seconds to play to carry UNM out of a 61-59 lead into a 66-59 lead. But it wasn’t that easy.
“When Kendall shot that shot, I thought, ‘Too tough. That’s too tough of a shot. He’s not going to make that,’” Rice said.
The Broncos packaged two treys around two misses at the line from Williams and it was 66-65 with 22 seconds to play. The Broncos again fouled Williams with 18.6 to play. Williams was 1-of-6 from the line and walked away 3-of-8 with his team up 68-65. Boise State scored a layup, but Bairstow hit two at the line with 3.8 ticks to go: 70-67. The Broncos lost the ball on an over-and-back (backcourt violation) and UNM moved into the finals.
“A credit to us for being able to pull through,” said Greenwood. “We’ve dealt with pressure like this before and we made plays when we needed to.”
The Broncos took a huge hit at 7:15 when Bropleh was ejected from the semifinal battle after coming down hard on Bairstow, who was going up for a layup. It was a hard hit across the Lobo’s head and neck that sent Bairstow to the floor and sent Bropleh to the locker room with his 16 points.
“I don’t think it was on purpose,” said Neal of the hard foul. “I think that was an accident when he was trying to compete at a high level. I felt bad for him. It wasn’t intentional, but it’s the rule.”
The Lobos’ game with the Broncos obviously was charged with emotion and hard, physical plays. It probably won’t be any different Saturday in the title game. “We’ll see what happens,” said Coach Neal. “I think they (Lobos) are excited to get another shot.”
Probably more than excited. The Lobos (26-6) aren’t happy losing their regular-season title to SDSU, but you have to give the Aztecs their due. They won the long grind that produces a title that teams usually value most because you play almost everybody in a home-and-road scenario over 17 games.
But a three-game tournament run is a great thing to take into the NCAA Tournament. It’s called momentum.
There also is an automatic NCAA bid on the line Saturday, but that’s not much of a chip on the table. The Lobos will go dancing. The Aztecs will go dancing. However, a win on Saturday could bring a better seed. That can be a huge factor in the NCAA Tournament which is loaded with great teams, good teams and fired up Cinderellas.
The Lobos’ and the Aztecs’ Round Three is another game of key matchups fueled to supersonic temperatures. But the spark is not there simply because of what’s on the line, but also because of the nature of these Mountain West bullies. They like to win. They hate to lose.
Someone will lose Saturday in the Thomas & Mack, but they won’t go home and turn in jerseys. They will tune into Selection Day Sunday and find out where they fall in the NCAA bracket.
But before that they once again will dance with each other.