LAS VEGAS — The University of New Mexico men's basketball team — which was a preseason prediction to finish in ninth place — wasn't supposed to be here.
The Lobos were mired in mediocrity, staring at a 3-8 record after suffering an 89-73 loss to the Arizona Wildcats on Dec. 16 earlier in the season. There probably weren't many who believed the team had the talent to compete, but several months later, the narrative has changed.
Head coach Paul Weir sat at the podium with two key players from Friday night's 83-68 triumph over Utah State. Weir said the decision to select senior Sam Logwood and junior guard Troy Simons to join him on the dais was a deliberate won, saying they embodied what this year's Lobo team is all about.
"I picked these two guys to come up here on purpose because they have both been through a lot this year — with me and with themselves — and they are kind of (symbolic) of our team. We never gave up," Weir said.
Weir said he never quite gave up on Logwood or Simons, and they never gave up on him. And that has seemed to be Logwood and Simons both had struggles during the regular season — with both players missing time for various reasons. Logwood said what he went through was personal, but it was something that he needed and made him grow as a man.
"It's a great feeling — fighting through adversity and finally getting what I've worked so hard for," Logwood said. "We're finally seeing all the work pay off and it's a blessing to be able to play tomorrow."
Both Simons and Logwood were key contributors in the win over Utah State — Simons was New Mexico's high-point man with 17, while Logwood contributed 16 points to the cause.
The team appears to be streaking at the right time as Friday night's win was the Lobos' seventh-straight victory — dating back to the regular season — catapulting UNM into the Mountain West Championship game where they will face the San Diego State Aztecs.
San Diego State is probably also a surprise to many as well — especially the manner in which the Aztecs made it to the Mountain West title game. They destroyed the conference's No. 1 seed, Nevada, leading by as many as 34 points in what ended up being a 90-73 victory.
The path for the Aztecs, the tournament No. 5 seed, also included a 64-52 win over Fresno State in the quarterfinals, while New Mexico led wire-to-wire on the way to knocking off Wyoming by a count of 85-75.
The Aztecs and Lobos met just once during the regular season back on Jan. 20. San Diego State led most of the game, but blew a 13-point lead as New Mexico rallied in the second half to move ahead and snag a 79-75 victory in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
UNM senior transfer Antino Jackson poured in a game-high 24 points in that contest and junior guard Anthony Mathis had 21 to help pave the way. That duo combined to hit 10 of the team's 13 3-pointers against San Diego State, but the Lobos have struggled in the tournament to connect from long range so far — one of the team's few shortcomings.
Turnovers could be a major factor in the game as well. In the first meeting UNM committed just five turnovers for the game, while forcing 12 from the Aztecs.
SDSU is led by head coach Brian Dutcher, who is in his 19th season, but first at the helm for the Aztecs; Weir is also enjoying his first year as the Lobo head coach.
The teams will face off against each other at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, with a schedule tip time of 3 p.m.
New Mexico head coaches are normally introduced and presented with a cherry blazer, but the jacket was noticeably absence when Weir was hired. He explained that he would have to earn the right to wear the trademark blazer, it didn't seem appropriate at the time to do so.
Regardless of the outcome on Saturday — most would probably agree, the new head coach has earned it and should be donning the patented cherry blazer real soon.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball, football and tennis. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.