Over the last couple weeks, New Mexico men’s basketball coach Craig Neal said that some have not given his team enough credit about its win over Cincinnati, a foe receiving votes at the time but ranked seventh last week.
A dominating win over the sixth-ranked team in the country should go a long way to rectify that.
The Lobos, playing before a sold-out Pit crowd that hit 118 decibels at times, made a huge statement before a national ESPN2 audience Saturday night with a 58-44 victory over No. 6 San Diego State, a game that never felt close in the second half.
The victory moved UNM into a first-place tie with SDSU with four games left on the schedule and a rematch on tap for March 8, the regular-season finale. The teams hold a four-game lead and neither can finish worse than second.
“A win that I know they wanted, a win that I wanted,” Neal said. “You have to win those games if you want to be relevant and we want to be really relevant.”
SDSU, who won 20 straight games before a Feb. 5 loss at Boise State, boasted the best defensive statistics in the Mountain West. However, UNM’s defense was the one to beat. The Lobos utilized two big scoring runs, first a 9-0 spurt and then a 10- rally, to build a 24-point lead midway through the second half.
UNM had only two letdowns in the second half, and neither were enough to bring SDSU within striking range. After leading 52-29, the Aztecs scored six straight points off steals. SDSU also outscored UNM 9-4 over the final five minutes.
The Aztecs gave up an even 50 percent shooting clip as the Lobos completed 25 of their 50 field goal attempts. At the other end, UNM held SDSU to 32.3 percent shooting (21 of 65), including 2 of 10 from 3-point range.
“I don’t know what you guys watch and what you guys are thinking when you watch our defense, but we’ve held nine straight teams under their average,” Neal said. “So if that’s bad defense, then that’s bad defense, but our defense was terrific tonight.”
UNM also kept San Diego off the free throw line for the second half and the Aztecs took three foul shots the entire game, missing all three.
“To keep them off the line was huge, but knowing they don’t shoot a lot of 3s (the low post is) where they want to get a lot of shots,” guard Hugh Greenwood said. “They want to attack the paint and score in the paint and get rebounds and get fouls, so we kept them at three free throws.”
SDSU coach Steve Fisher called UNM the best team the Aztecs have seen all season.
“That includes Kansas, that includes Marquette and that includes Creighton,” he said. “They’re a terrific team and they played that way tonight. I’m sure they’ll be ranked this week.”
Forward Cameron Bairstow netted 12 points over both scoring runs. Bairstow, the current Mountain West scoring leader, made a case for the conference player of the year award after scoring 26 points and pulling down nine rebounds.
UNM kept another MW player of the year candidate, SDSU guard Xavier Thames, in check all game long. He made three field goals on 15 attempts and had only seven points.
Only guard Winston Shepard reached double figures for SDSU, scoring 10 points. UNM guard Kendall Williams joined Bairstow and Shepard in double digits, also with 10 points.
The Lobos outscored the Aztecs by the same margin in both halves, 29-22. The teams battled to a 6-all tie by the first media timeout before a 10-2 UNM run gave them an 8-point cushion, 18-10. From there, UNM maintained a five- to nine-point lead to the halftime break.
After the game, the teams got into a scuffle as they exchanged handshakes and had to be separated. A cup of water and ice was also thrown at the San Diego State players as they walked up the ramp toward the locker rooms.
“Handshake lines aren’t good and I still don’t understand them,” Neal said. “When two competitive teams go to war, they are not nice. I don’t know what happened, but it’s my responsibility to control my team and that’s what I did.”