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.
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.
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.