It was a war between the Mountain West's two best teams at Viejas Arena on Saturday night. No. 21 New Mexico had a 16 point, second-half lead, but it wasn't enough as No. 10 San Diego State roared back to capture the conference crown 51-48. It took a 26-7 closing run for the Aztecs to shatter the hopes of the Lobos.
On Senior Night, the seniors for San Diego State were the difference-makers. Xavier Thames led all scorers with 23 points to go with five steals and three assists. No other Aztecs player scored in double digits. Fellow senior Josh Davis had nine big rebounds along with six points and three steals.
Early on, New Mexico looked tough to beat. Their big men, Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, were too much for San Diego State. They got dunks. They hit outside shots. Meanwhile the Aztecs were picking up fouls and sending them to the free throw line. At the midpoint, Bairstow had 13 points and Kirk had nine with the Lobos taking a 26-20 halftime lead.
San Diego State got off to a quick start in the second half and pulled to within a point. Then New Mexico took off on a 15-0 run to lead 41-25 with 12:04 remaining. The "never say die" Aztecs went on a 9-0 run to begin their comeback. They followed it with a 10-1 run that enabled them to take a 44-42 lead. This is the team that has now closed out 116 straight games when they have led at the 5:00 minute mark.
In this low-scoring game, it was the Aztecs defense that once again ignited the victory. The Lobos had 10 turnovers in the second half. The Aztecs had 10 steals. They changed to a 1-3-1 zone defense to force someone other than Bairstow and Kirk to score. Bairstow had 20 points on the night, but he made his last field goal, a dunk, with 12:48 left in the second half. Kirk made his last field goal with 12:04 remaining.
Kendall Williams made a long three pointer with a second remaining to narrow the final margin from six points to three. On the night, Williams was 3-for-10 from the field for seven points. He turned the ball over five times and committed four fouls.
New Mexico was the preseason favorite and justifiably so. They had everyone back except for Tony Snell who is now playing on the Chicago Bulls. The Aztecs lost two-thirds of their scoring to graduation and the NBA. Jamaal Franklin was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies while Chase Tapley, Deshawn Stephens and James Rahon all ran out of eligibility. It appeared to be a rebuilding year for the Aztecs who were picked to come in fourth in the Mountain West.
The Lobos were a preseason Top 25 team. The Aztecs weren't even getting any votes. But both teams have been very good all year and deserve to be ranked and playing in the NCAA tournament. But first things first.
The Aztecs are now the #1 seed for the upcoming Mountain West tournament. The Lobos are the #2 seed. It will be no surprise if they end up in a rematch for the MW tournament championship on March 15.