LAS VEGAS – Over the last three years, but especially over the last three weeks, New Mexico and San Diego State have staked a claim as the premier rivalry in the Mountain West.
Their season’s third meeting, this time for the tournament championship, didn’t disappoint. At the end, UNM cut down the nets at the Thomas & Mack Center for the third straight time.
The Lobos, ranked No. 20 nationally, outdueled the conference’s regular-season champion in 64-58 slugfest on Saturday, earning the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Forward Cameron Bairstow claimed tournament’s most valuable player honors and joined guard Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk as all-tournament selections.
“I’ve got terrific kids, a terrific team that’s believed in me, taking over a team that won back-to-back regular season and tournament championships,” head coach Craig Neal. “This is our third one. It’s very special to me.”
Everything seemed to line up for this showdown. Both New Mexico and No. 8 San Diego State emerged as the top two teams in the conference standings at an early point. UNM won the first meeting in dominating fashion and set up an end-of-season clash for the regular-season title. The Aztecs claimed the regular-season crown in a rallying thriller.
Both teams did their jobs to set up yet another meeting. UNM beat Fresno State and Boise State to reach Saturday’s finale, while SDSU dropped Utah State and UNLV.
“It’s hard to beat any great team three times,” Bairstow said. “That’s what they are, a great team. We know we let one slip in San Diego. At the same time we understood that we did have them right where we wanted them.”
Neither team led by more than seven points, and that margin came in the final 2:34 of the game. The Lobos held a 27-22 lead at halftime after scoring the last six points. Bairstow, Williams and Kirk, considered UNM’s Big Three, each scored over that final minute and a half.
San Diego State struck back after the break and forced five turnovers and seven fouls by the first media timeout. UNM had only four turnovers in the first 30 minutes. When the timeout hit, SDSU held a 30-28 lead.
“They added an extra guy up on the halfcourt timeline,” Williams said. “They just congested the 10-second area a little more. It spread the game up a lot. They’re just a bunch of athletes over there, a bunch of athletes that think the same and play the same.”
The Aztecs committed their own fouls and hit their seventh at the 11:57 mark. Both teams reached the double bonus by the 8:03 mark, and they combined for 69 fouls. Those fouls translated to UNM shooting 13 of 22 from the free throw line, a 59.1 percent clip. SDSU was 81.5 percent from the stripe, 22 of 27.
The teams exchanged 12 leads and tied 10 times in the game. UNM maintained a lead over an eight-minute span until SDSU recaptured the edge at 57-56. Bairstow dropped a layup to put UNM back on top, and the Lobos progressed on an 8-0 run that included a Williams 3-pointer and three Bairstow free throws.
Neal said he hopes capturing a win over a top-10 team in SDSU will help the team’s seeding for the NCAA tournament.
“There’s a lot of teams that lost from 12 to 20 before us,” Neal said. “It’s all about seeding, all about the draw. Hopefully it will help us. One thing I can is I’ve to a pretty good basketball team.”
Bairstow led UNM in scoring with 17 points, followed by Williams with 16 and guard Hugh Greenwood with 12. UNM shot 40 percent from the field (18 of 44) and 30 percent from 3-point range (6 of 20).
Guard Xavier Thames netted 15 points to lead SDSU, while guard Dwayne Polee II had 14 and forward Winston Shepard had 13. SDSU was 35 percent from the field (20 of 56) and 35.7 from beyond the arc (5 of 14).