SAN DIEGO – Yes, it was a heart-wrenching loss.
Yes, it was a breakdown of epic proportions.
But New Mexico’s 51-48 loss at No. 10 San Diego State doesn’t change the overall picture for the Lobos.
UNM still earned the No. 2 seed in the upcoming Mountain West tourney in Las Vegas, Nev., and there’s still the NCAA tournament starting on March 18. Even if the Lobos lose in MW Championships, they’re still a lock for the NCAAs.
Head coach Craig Neal said losing out on a chance to three-peat as MW regular-season champs stings, but he knows there’s still more basketball to play.
“It will be tough and I’ll have to give them a couple of days off. I told them they have to keep their heads up,” he said. “It’s not easy losing, because my kids are winners. They know how to win and they got a lot of pride…They’re tough kids and they’re resilient kids so I’m sure they’ll be back.”
The resilience that has served the Lobos so well during the regular-season will be tested in the weeks to come.
Throughout most of the season, UNM developed a killer instinct by being able to put away lesser teams. Faltering with SDSU, a team that won 20 straight games at one point in time this season, is nothing to be ashamed of.
The loss won’t look good in the eyes of poll voters, but the AP poll and the Coaches poll are nothing more than popularity contests that are meaningless.
UNM is still more than capable of making a run in March, something that Lobo fans are more than yearning for at this point in time.
With center Alex Kirk and forward Cameron Bairstow, who in my opinion should be the MW Player of the Year, the Lobos have a chance to finally scratch off that elusive Sweet 16 spot.
The Lobos went away from them in the last eight minutes of game time in the loss because of the pressure from the Aztecs 1-3-1 zone, but how many other tournament teams will be able to fluster UNM the way SDSU did?
There aren’t many teams who have the Aztecs’ length and athleticism across the board, and there are fewer teams that can hold the Lobos’ offense scoreless over a long period of time.
As long as UNM doesn’t get away from their devastating front court combo there shouldn’t be much worry in Lobo Land.
In the loss, Bairstow and Kirk combined for 33 points in through the first 28 minutes and recorded just one point in the final 12 minutes.
“We did lose our last game last year and I guess it’s the same thing,” Bairstow said. “It’s up to the guys and the coaching staff to be positive about it and bounce back from it.”
Regardless, a 24-6 regular-season campaign and a second place finish is nothing to scoff at and if Neal wins one more game this season he’ll have the winningest season ever for a first year coach at UNM.
“You always want to win. I don’t know if its disappointment, but your goal is to win,” Neal said. “We were 15-3 in a league where we thought 14-4 would win it. That’s part of it and it’s a learning experience. They gave me everything they can.”