SAN DIEGO — A monumental collapse dropped the New Mexico men’s basketball team into the No. 2 seed for next week’s Mountain West Basketball Championships.

The Lobos let a 16-point lead slip away at Viejas Arena in San Diego on Saturday, and San Diego State rallied for a 51-48 victory in the regular-season finale. UNM had won the last two MW regular-season crowns, including a share with SDSU in 2012.

The Aztecs won the Mountain West regular-season championship outright, securing the top seed for the conference tournament.

The Lobos, as the second seed, will play either Fresno State or Air Force in Thursday’s second round in Las Vegas. Both teams had first-round byes already locked up.

By Aaron Sweet
New Mexico center Alex Kirk goes up against the Aztec defense in San Diego on Saturday. The New Mexico men’s basketball team is the No. 2 seed for next week’s Mountain West Basketball Championships.
By Aaron Sweet
New Mexico head coach Craig Neal hangs his head during the game against San Diego State in San Diego on Saturday. The Lobos let a 16-point lead slip away and San Diego State rallied for a 51-48 victory.

Two big runs dictated the second half, the latter benefitting SDSU. UNM used a 15-0 rally to capture a 41-25 lead. From there, SDSU battled its way back with a 19-1 run and forced New Mexico into several bad possessions, courtesy of a 1-3-1 zone.

“It was a very hard-fought game, and they changed the tempo on us and did some things we hadn’t seen,” head coach Craig Neal said.

“They played 1-3-1 and we struggled with it. I thought we’d be able to handle it and we didn’t do a very good job with that.”

SDSU coach Steve Fisher said assistant Justin Hutson talked to him about switching to the 1-3-1 zone earlier in UNM’s big run, but he hesitated. After a couple more Lobo baskets, Fisher switched to the zone with his team down 41-27.

“I said, ‘What the heck? We better try something,’” Fisher said. “We pulled it out.”

The decision worked to SDSU’s benefit. UNM missed five shots and turned the ball over six times, resulting in six Aztec points.

For the game SDSU scored 22 points off 16 turnovers, considered the Aztecs’ bread and butter.

Guard Xavier Thames kicked into another gear after UNM’s 15-0 run. The MW Player of the Year candidate netted eight points in SDSU’s comeback and finished with a game-high 23 points.

UNM guards Kendall Williams and Hugh Greenwood also found themselves in foul trouble, each picking up their fourth fouls during the Aztec rally.

“That hurt us, but that’s part of the game,” Neal said. “Fouls are a part of the game.”

UNM built its 41-27 lead in the second half off what it does best: working the ball inside to key big men Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow. The duo accounted for 11 of UNM’s 15 points over that four-minute span, while Williams and guard Deshawn Delaney added buckets over the run.

Bairstow said the Lobos went away from their working formula and credited SDSU for doing a good job on the 1-3-1 zone.

“They’re long and athletic across the board, and I think it surprised a lot of guys and we weren’t able to settle down into a good flow against it,” he said. “When things went south, I don’t think we did a good job staying positive and staying composed.”

The Aztecs closed it out with a 26-7 scoring run. Over the last three minutes UNM missed another five shots. UNM’s only make down out of the stretch came off a Williams 3-pointer as time expired. SDSU completed its largest second-half comeback since the 1996-97 season.

“We had a 16-point lead and everything was going good,” Neal said. “Then we stopped getting stops defensively and getting them in transition.”

UNM held a 26-20 halftime lead, ending the first 20 minutes with a 13-2 run. Over the last 5:45, the Lobos picked up seven points from Bairstow, including two at the buzzer, and six from Kirk.

The center scored back-to-back field goals both off Bairstow assists. San Diego State had lead 18-14 before the spurt.

Bairstow and Kirk were the only two Lobos to reach double figures, hitting 20 and 14, respectively. Kirk registered a double-double with 11 rebounds, including 10 on the defensive end.

UNM scored the only two 3-pointers in the game, the first coming from Delaney at the 4:27 mark of the second half. Williams’ had the other with his end-of-game buzzer-beater. The teams combined for 2 of 23 from beyond the arc, and the Aztecs missed all nine attempts from long range.

The Lobos hit 45.2 percent from the field (19 of 42) and 66.7 percent from the free throw line (8 of 12), while SDSU was 39 percent on field goals (19 of 48) and 65 percent on free throws (13 of 20).