Mountain West Tournament: No. 20 New Mexico wins rubber match, third straight tournament title

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One week ago No. 20 New Mexico wilted in the face of No. 8 San Diego State’s 1-3-1 trap, failing to make a field goal over the final 12 minutes of their 51-48 defeat. And in the early stages of the second half in the Mountain West title game it looked as if that would once again be the case, with the Aztecs using a 1-2-1-1 full-court press to force the Lobos into becoming stagnant and committing multiple turnovers.

But the Lobos would regain their poise, and a Kendall Williams dagger from 25 feet out with 26 seconds remaining sealed the 64-58 victory and a third consecutive Mountain West tournament title for the Lobos.

The Lobos managed to win despite turning the ball over 15 times, which resulted in 21 San Diego State points. Two of the reasons why: their half-court defense and a nine-point advantage at the foul line. New Mexico limited San Diego State to 35.7% shooting from the field, and leading scorer Xavier Thames scored his 15 points on 6-for-16 shooting before fouling out with 13 seconds remaining.

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New Mexico’s big men weren’t as dominant as they were a week ago in San Diego, but both Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk did their part in Las Vegas. Bairstow, the tournament MVP, scored 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds with Kirk adding eight points and 11 rebounds. But once again New Mexico had issues with San Diego State’s active defenders, and the role players were the ones who stepped up in the second half.

Hugh Greenwood (12 points), Deshawn Delaney (seven points, five rebounds) and Cullen Neal (a key four-point play that also resulted in Thames’ fourth foul with 11:03 remaking) all made key plays in the second half, supplementing the efforts of Williams and Bairstow (17 points, nine rebounds). That difference kept New Mexico from wilting in the face of the SDSU pressure as they did a week ago, setting the stage for Williams’ epic three-pointer as the shot clock expired.

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This will be key for New Mexico moving forward, because as good as their three leaders are the Lobos will need those contributions if they’re to advance in the NCAA tournament. New Mexico will also need to improve their handling of pressure whether it’s in the half or full-court, because that’s something they’ll likely have to deal with at some point.

But if anything Craig Neal saw important progress made by his team in Las Vegas. Instead of folding the Lobos answered the challenge and landed the critical blow, winning yet another Mountain West tournament crown as a result.

POSTERIZED: Wyoming’s Josh Adams takes flight

Josh Adams
Associated Press
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Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.

After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.

Video credit: Wyoming Athletics

Defensive progress will determine No. 4 Iowa State’s ceiling

Monte Morris
Associated Press
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Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.

Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.

Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.

Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.

Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.

But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.