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.

Marcus Paige, Joel Berry lead No. 9 North Carolina past No. 2 Maryland

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — He’s back.

For the first time this season — and for the first time in more than a year that he hasn’t been hampered with some kind of foot or ankle injury — Marcus Paige donned a North Carolina jersey, and it didn’t take him long to find the form that made him the NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year.

On the first Tar Heel possession, Paige came off of a ball-screen, drove the lane and found Kennedy Meeks at the rim for a layup. Not 30 seconds later, he came off of a down screen and buried a three. Paige would finish with 20 points and five assists as No. 9 North Carolina put together a fairly resounding win over No. 2 Maryland in the Dean Dome on Tuesday night, winning 89-81.

Paige finished 7-for-12 from the floor and 4-for-5 from beyond the arc, hitting a number of threes in the second half that helped hold off a Maryland push sparked by their own all-american point guard, Melo Trimble.

Trimble was erratic early on, committing three turnovers in the first six minutes and eight on the night, but it was his play at the end of the first half and early second half that kept North Carolina from blowing their doors. At one point, Maryland was down 32-19 and in danger of getting run out of Tobacco Road.

In total, Trimble finished with 23 points and 12 assists, hitting four big threes during that stretch. He either scored or assisted on 11 of Maryland’s first 12 second half field goals.

As good as Paige was, the bigger story may actually be Joel Berry II. He took two dumb threes in the first half — which played a role in Maryland being able to make this a game — and he missed a few free throws late, but overall he was terrific. He finished with 14 points and five assists, making 3-of-5 threes and turning the ball over just twice. He’s clearly beat Nate Britt out at the point guard spot, and his ability to take pressure off of Paige as a secondary ball-handler and playmaker is huge.

(More to come from Chapel Hill…)

VIDEO: Melo Trimble drops Nate Britt with a crossover

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North Carolina is hosting No. 2 Maryland in a heated contest in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Terps sophomore guard Melo Trimble is playing very well and part of his performance was dropping North Carolina’s Nate Britt with a crossover in the second half.

(H/T: The Cauldron)