LAS VEGAS – Last season, New Mexico forward Cameron Bairstow didn’t know what it meant to be named to the Mountain West All-Tournament team.
Now Bairstow knows fully well what it means to be the Mountain West Championships Tournament MVP. He won that award after the Lobos beat San Diego State 64-58 Saturday at the Thomas and Mack Center.
Bairstow averaged 20.3 points and nine boards per contest, propelling UNM to its third consecutive Mountain West tournament title.
“Being all-tournament team last year did give me some confidence coming back into it. Being able to share it with these guys the last year here, to finish it like that is awesome,” Bairstow said. “At the same time we understand we’ve got more basketball to play, so we’re looking forward to it.”
The Australian powered the Lobos with his physical play the entire tournament, earning 41 trips to the free throw line and set a Mountain West tournament record. BYU’s Jimmer Fredette had the old mark back in 2010 when he had 36 attempts from the charity stripe.
That dominance continued for Bairstow in the title game when he paced the Lobos with 17 points and snatched nine rebounds. Bairstow also drew numerous fouls and ended up 11 of 14 from the free throw line.
“It wasn’t about proving a point. You just got to understand it’s all about team success. That’s what it is,” Bairstow said. “All the accolades that come off that are a bonus. At the end of the say it’s all based on team success.”
Bairstow’s breakout year started at the University World Games over the summer where he powered the Australian national to a second place finish.
That experience helped trigger him to becoming one of the best power forwards not only in the Mountain West conference but in the entire country. Bairstow averaged 20.3 points per game along with 7.3 rebounds this season.
“It’s been really good. Started in the summer. Won a silver medal then. That was a great experience,” Bairstow said. “Then carried it over. I think we’ve had a pretty successful season so far. I think that’s it.”
Head coach Craig Neal said there surely will be more awards for Bairstow in the coming weeks with the NCAA tournament around the corner.
“I say that because he’s my guy. It’s always been that way, that the top player from the top team wins it. I was trying to sway that maybe he could win ti without being the top team,” Neal said. “But Bairstow is the real deal. I told a lot of people that. I talked to a lot of people the last few months. I think he’s going to be an All-American selection.”
Neal cuts down his first net
Neal apparently isn’t a fan of throwing freshly cut basketball net around his net like his predecessor.
“I’m Craig,” he said. “I don’t have the net around my neck.”
Though he doesn’t share Steve Alford’s sense of style after winning a conference title, Neal still clipped down the nets at the Thomas & Mack. Neal won his first conference tournament championship exactly one week after UNM lost the regular-season title to the Aztecs.
“I told them at the start of the year they’ll always be my favorite team because they’re my first team,” Neal said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for these kids. They bust their butt every day. They represent our program with class.”
Neal surpassed Alford’s UNM record for wins in an inaugural season at 27. More could be on the way now that the Lobos locked up the Mountain West’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“You don’t honestly know what would have happened without him (Neal), if he had gone off to UCLA with coach (Alford),” Lobo center Alex Kirk said. “It’s really special to have him. We were able to keep as much of a family as we could here. I think it just made the three-peat that much more special.”
Interestingly enough, Alford won his first PAC-12 tournament with 74-68 win over Arizona. That game took place at the MGM Grand, also in Las Vegas.
“It’s funny that two southern Indiana kids are cutting down nets in Vegas, one from the PAC-12, one from the Mountain West,” Neal said. “Very blessed to be a dear friend of his and best friend of his for a long time.”
~ J.R. Oppenheim
Fresno State takes home women’s title
The No. 2 seed Bulldogs won the women’s tournament title with a 77-68 victory over top seed Colorado State.
The Bulldogs had two players score 20 plus points in guard Bree Farley (26 points) and guard Taylor Thompson (23 points).
Guard Gritt Ryder paced the Rams with 18 points, guard AJ Newton had 13, guard Caitlin Duffer managed 11 and Elin Gustavsson scored 10.
Gustavsson, Ryder, Farley, Thompson and Wyoming’s Kayla Woodward were named to the All-Tournament team. Thompson also garnered tournament MVP honors.
~ Thomas Romero-Salas