An Alex Kirk shot with 12:05 remaining in No. 21 New Mexico’s game at No. 10 San Diego State gave the visiting Lobos a 41-25 lead, and it looked as if the Aztecs were in serious trouble. UNM big men Kirk and Cameron Bairstow were playing well, proving to problematic for the San Diego State front court. But then SDSU head coach Steve Fisher made a strategic move seldom seen since the Aztecs used this wrinkle in their win at Kansas in early January.
He went to an active 1-3-1 zone, and the Lobos were thoroughly confused by the new look. New Mexico (24-6, 15-3) would score just seven points in the final 12:05, losing 51-48 as San Diego State won the Mountain West regular season title.
Bairstow finished the game with 20 points and seven rebounds, with Kirk adding 14 to go along with 11 boards. But with San Diego State (27-3, 16-2) going to the 1-3-1 New Mexico’s two most effective offensive threats did not attempt a single shot in the final 12 minutes, with a Bairstow free throw with 7:27 remaining being the only point either would score during that decisive stretch. To say the least New Mexico was confused by the look, and they had no counter either.
Kendall Williams having to sit out part of that 26-7 finish with four fouls didn’t help but he was ineffective for most of the night, finishing with seven points (3-for-10 FG), four assists and five turnovers. As a team New Mexico committed 11 turnovers in the second half, with San Diego State scoring 16 points off of those mistakes. So not only did the strategic move help the Aztecs neutralize the UNM big men, it also served as a spark for an offense that struggled to get anything going.
Could there be a rubber match of sorts in Las Vegas next Saturday night? Given how well these two teams have performed throughout conference play, that would be the expectation of many. But there are clearly things for New Mexico to work on in advance of the Mountain West tournament, particularly their zone offense. New Mexico was hit with a punch it didn’t see coming Saturday night, and they fell short of their goal as a result.