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Friday, November 28, 2014

Men's Basketball: Mountain West title on the line

UNM takes on SDSU Saturday at Viejas Arena

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By Sergio Jiménez / New Mexico Daily Lobo

New Mexico forward Cameron Bairstow knocks the ball out of Air Force DeLovell Earls’ possession during the game against Air Force at the Pit on Wednesday. The number-21 Lobos will play 10th-ranked San Diego State for the Mountain West title this Saturday at 8 p.m. in San Diego, California.

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Weeks ago San Diego State and New Mexico positioned themselves for a season-ending battle for the Mountain West regular-season men’s basketball title. Both sides accomplished their tasks and that showdown has come to fruition.

The Lobos, ranked No.21 in the nation, travel to Viejas Arena Saturday to take on the No. 10 Aztecs with the title and a top seed on the line. UNM’s win over SDSU on Feb. 22 forced a tie for the league lead and both teams won their ensuing games.

The winner will receive the No. 1 seed for next week’s Mountain West Basketball Championship along with the regular-season trophy. The loser is guaranteed the No. 2 seed because both UNM and SDSU hold a five-game lead on third-place UNLV.

The top five seeds get first-round byes for the tournament.

Saturday’s game is certainly one Lobo fans have had circled on their calendars for a while. Head coach Craig Neal stresses focus on the task at hand and not looking to games in the future. This time, however, the next game is the big one for the crown.

“Our guys are smart. One step at a time, but you see it coming,” he said. “It’s going to be a unique experience for us. It’s going to be a unique experience for them, and I think it’s going to be really good for the conference.”

This rematch seems reminiscent of last year’s series, where UNM fired only 25 percent from the field in road loss to SDSU before winning the second game at home. UNM eventually won 2012-13 conference’s regular-season and tournament championship.

In the Feb. 22 contest at The Pit, the Aztecs shot 32 percent and made only two 3-pointers in a 58-44 Lobo victory. San Diego State also surrendered a 50 percent shooting clip.

UNM then defeated Utah State, Nevada and Air Force while SDSU bested San Jose State, Fresno State and UNLV. The Aztecs capped Wednesday night’s action by pulling away from the Runnin’ Rebels in the last five minutes, hours after the Lobos throttled the Falcons on Senior Night.

Guard Kendall Williams said he does not think the Lobos will fall short in the second meeting like SDSU did a year ago, given what is on the line.

“It’s easy to avoid a letdown because it’s the last game of conference, at their place, for the championship,” he said. “We’re going into a hostile environment and that will keep us going the whole time. I don’t know how we’re going to play, but I know we’re going to play Lobo basketball.”

San Diego State guard Xavier Thames, a potential Mountain West Player of the Year winner, said the Aztecs must match UNM’s intensity this time around. The Lobos contained SDSU’s top scoring threat to three field goals and seven points in the prior matchup.

“I’m sure we’ll be ready,” Thames said in a statement. “We’ll have to get back in transition and do a good job of rebounding. We didn’t do a good job of getting back in the first game.”

UNM forward Cameron Bairstow, meanwhile, seems poised to win the Player of the Year award. He has posted 16 20-point games this season, including 21 against Air Force, and continues to lead the league in scoring (20.3 points per game) and field goal percentage (56 percent).