It was a good run — probably a surprising one to many — but the University of New Mexico men's basketball team came up a bit short in its quest to win the Mountain West Championship and a chance to dance its way into the NCAA Tournament.
New Mexico entered the conference tournament as one of the hottest teams in the league boasting a season-high five-game winning streak. But after posting two more wins to make it to the championship round, that streak came to an end on Saturday afternoon — as the Lobos fell to the only team that had a longer win streak.
San Diego State won its final six regular season games and capped things off by winning three games in three days at the Thomas & Mack Center to become the new champions of the Mountain West, holding off the Lobos by a final score of 82-75.
UNM head coach Paul Weir said he felt the Lobos played a pretty good game, but that the reality was it was probably going to take a great game to beat San Diego State. He said he took notice of the talent the Aztecs had on the squad prior to the start of the season.
"When I went to Mountain West Conference media days and I saw those guys walking around, I thought to myself 'This is an impressive looking team,'" Weir said. "They have a tremendous group of players."
Antino Jackson reacts following the end of Saturday's Mountain West Tournament Championship in Las Vegas, Nevada against San Diego State. The Aztecs defeated the Lobos 82-75.
But the Lobos had some pretty impressive players as well and the teams seemed to match up pretty well on paper heading into the matchup.
New Mexico and San Diego State took similar paths to get to the Mountain West finals, with each school notching convincing double-digit victories in the quarter and semifinal rounds. And each team featured a senior guard who had the ability to take over a game at any time — both of whom seemed hungry to keep their postseason hopes alive.
SDSU turned the ball over on the opening possession of the game, which led to a Vladimir Pinchuk layup for the first score of the game. A few minutes later, Lobo senior guard Antino Jackson stole the ball, driving in for a layup to give his team an early 10-2 lead.
But the Aztecs quickly came storming back, meeting little resistance on drives to the hoop and claiming their first lead, a 13-12 advantage at the 13:46 mark.
And the momentum continued to bounce back and forth between the two squads in a game that saw six ties and 11 lead changes, though San Diego State played from ahead for most of the contest.
The Aztecs pushed their lead to 29-23 with just under five minutes remaining in the half, but the Lobos responded with back-to-back 3-pointers from Jackson and junior guard Anthony Mathis to knot things up.
New Mexico was able to use the deep ball to its advantage in the first half, making 6-of-11 from long range, but trailed 39-38 heading into the locker room.
The teams traded shots and leads in the opening minutes of the second half, but the Lobos began to inch ahead at around the midway point.
Senior Joe Furstinger nailed a jumper from around the free throw line to give UNM a one-point lead. Jackson increased the advantage when he followed his own miss for a put back score — getting fouled in the process. He hit the ensuing free throw, giving the Lobos a 59-55 edge with 9:43 remaining in the game.
The senior guard seemed to have given UNM the shot of adrenaline it needed and the Lobos pushed the margin to six points on a couple of occasions in the following minutes.
But it was San Diego State's Trey Kell who stole the show, rising to the occasion to score 21 second-half points — including nine points in the final 5:01 of the game to turn what was a one-point game into something that proved to be insurmountable.
The Lobos had no answer for Kell, who posted a game-high 28 points on 10-of-16 shooting. He helped engineer the comeback charge, dishing out an assist to Jeremy Helmsey, who knocked down a 3-pointer to put the Aztecs up by one point, 63-62, at the 6:46 mark.
Later Kell increased the lead to three points on a pull-up jumper and although he only hit one 3-pointer in the game — it was a big one — making the score 71-65 with under three minutes to play.
And the 3-point shot that was working so well for the Lobos in the first half, abandoned them when they needed it most. UNM went 2-of-13 in the second half from beyond the arc and the team struggled to score over those final three minutes — making just one shot during that time frame.
The Lobos cut the lead to four on a couple of occasions, but could not get any closer. The clock started to become and issue and when UNM was forced to foul, San Diego State answered by knocking down some big free throws to close the door and earn the 82-75 victory.
The Aztecs dominated both in scoring in the paint and from the free throw line. They seemed to get to the hoop with relative ease, and although the Lobos altered some shots, the Aztecs still score 38 points in the lane and went an impressive 21-of-29 from the charity stripe.
UNM actually shot a better percentage from the foul line, but had far less opportunities, going 15-of-17 on their attempts.
Jackson led the way for New Mexico with 17 points, pacing five Lobos who ended up in double figures. Anthony Mathis tallied 13 points, but continued to struggle shooting the deep ball, where he went just 2-of-7. Furstinger chipped in 12, while Sam Logwood and Troy Simons ended up with 11 points apiece.
New Mexico failed to the 10 made 3-pointer benchmark for the third straight game, after it had done so in the previous 12 straight games. And although the Lobos had won back-to-back games in the Mountain West tournament despite, the trend did not continue on Saturday.
Part of the reason the Lobos won the first two games of the MW tournament despite the absence of the 3-point shot, was due to out-rebounding their opponents, but San Diego State won the battle on the boards by a margin of 36-30.
The win likely ended any postseason hopes for New Mexico, which was not selected in the 2018 National Invitational Tournament field. San Diego State was awarded the No. 11 seed in the West Region and will face sixth-seeded Houston in its first-round matchup on March 15.
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.