(See UNM’s postgame press conference, below)
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — In a game that displayed all the color, excitement and drama of college basketball at its finest, the New Mexico men’s team erased an early 13-point deficit, squandered a late eight-point lead, then held on to beat 20th-ranked UNLV 72-67 in a Mountain West Conference tournament semifinal Saturday night.
The win sends the Lobos into today’s MWC championship game against 18th-ranked San Diego State at 5 p.m. It’s the 26-6 Lobos’ first appearance in the title contest since they won it in 2005.
There are 4,000 single-game tickets remaining for fans who want to make the jaunt today.
The Lobos took the lead two minutes into the second half on a 3-pointer by Tony Snell and never trailed again. But UNLV stormed back from a 64-56 deficit with just less than 5 minutes left and tied it at 64-64 with less than 2 minutes left.
The Rebels missed a 3-pointer and the Lobos’ Demetrius Walker grabbed the rebound, was fouled and hit both ends of a one-and-one with 1:35 remaining.
Walker hit two more free throws with 50 seconds left and UNM guard Kendall Williams added another pair as the mostly Lobo crowd was deafening.
Friday’s night game was between two teams already heading to the NCAA Tournament, but they played like two teams battling for their NCAA Tournament existence.
And it was yet another game that showed why this tournament is held at 18,500-seat UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center, which was jam-packed with red shirts — the primary color for both schools. But when it came to numbers and noise, the Lobo fans were the clear winners. They outnumbered the hometown Rebels in the two-game session that had an official crowd of 16,339.
Top-seeded San Diego State (26-6) beat fourth-seeded Colorado State 79-69 in the evening’s first semifinal game.
UNLV hadn’t lost at home all season, but never had to face a crowd like this on its own stomping grounds.
It had, however, faced UNM senior Drew Gordon twice before. But again it couldn’t find an answer for the Lobos 6-foot-9 post who had 19 points and 13 rebounds. He had 60 points and 45 boards in three games against the Rebels this season, with UNM winning two of them.
The Rebels got off to a torrid start, hitting six of their first seven shots — including three 3-pointers and a pair of three-point plays. UNLV exploded to leads of 12-0 and 17-4 and looked to be on the way to another blowout.
A night earlier, the Rebels posted a 33-11 lead against Wyoming early in the second half but nearly let it all slip away before wining 56-48. The Lobos didn’t need nearly as much time to make their comeback.
Senior post A.J. Hardeman scored on a bank shot and freshman Hugh Greenwood had back-to-back field goals as part of a 10-0 run to get the Lobos within 17-14 with just seven minutes gone in the game.
The Rebels came back behind senior Kendall Wallace, who hit a pair of 3s to help UNLV build a 29-20 lead.
But the Lobos came right back again with another scintillating spurt to take their first lead of the game. Snell started the 11-point burst with a 3-pointer, and finished with two free throws. In between Gordon scored twice inside as the UNM started to dominate.
NEW MEXICO (26-6)
Hardeman 2-2 0-2 4, Gordon 8-10 3-3 19, Greenwood 2-6 0-0 4, Williams 1-5 4-4 7, Snell 5-10 2-2 15, Fenton 3-5 0-0 7, McDonald 1-2 0-0 2, Walker 3-7 6-6 12, Bairstow 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 26-50 15-17 72.
Stanback 2-5 1-2 7, Moser 5-15 0-0 11, Massamba 3-8 0-0 6, Bellfield 4-9 4-4 13, Marshall 4-11 10-12 19, Thomas 0-0 0-0 0, Wallace 3-5 0-0 9, Smith 0-1 0-0 0, Lopez 0-3 2-2 2, Hawkins 0-2 0-2 0. Totals 21-59 17-22 67.
Halftime—UNLV 34-31. 3-Point Goals—New Mexico 5-16 (Snell 3-7, Fenton 1-2, Williams 1-2, Walker 0-2, Greenwood 0-3), UNLV 8-24 (Wallace 3-4, Stanback 2-5, Bellfield 1-4, Marshall 1-4, Moser 1-6, Hawkins 0-1). Fouled Out—Massamba. Rebounds—New Mexico 41 (Gordon 13), UNLV 25 (Massamba 9). Assists—New Mexico 20 (Snell 6), UNLV 11 (Bellfield 6). Total Fouls—New Mexico 19, UNLV 21. Technical—Walker. A—16,339.