(See videos from the Las Vegas scene below, including the postgame press conference and reaction from an array of UNM supporters.)
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — They are “co” no more.
The New Mexico Lobos were physical, energized and passionate — and put a 68-59 whipping on San Diego State here on Saturday night to win the Mountain West Conference men’s basketball tournament.
The second-seeded Lobos (27-6), who were co-champions in the regular season with the 18th-ranked Aztecs at 10-4 in league play, dominated from the start, then held off a late 3-point barrage by SDSU’s Chase Tapley to beat the tournament’s top seed.
A crowd of 12,168, about 80 percent being Lobo fans, rocked the Thomas & Mack throughout in celebrating the program’s first title in the event since 2005.
“It feels great,” said Lobo sophomore guard Tony Snell, who had 14 points, was 4-of-6 from 3-point range and made the all-tournament team. “I can’t even explain how it feels right now. Like a dream come true … we had our ups and downs, but we stuck together, we fought through it.”
The victory gives UNM the MWC’s automatic berth in this week’s NCAA Tournament — not that they needed it. The Lobos were already a lock for a bid, but will likely improve their seed. The tournament selection committee announces the 68-team field today.
So, where will coach Steve Alford’s Lobos be seeded?
“That’s hard. We’re obviously hoping we get four, four bids (for the league),” said Alford, wearing one of the court’s nets around his neck for the postgame news conference. “Our league is deserving of four bids. You play the tournament for seeding in the NCAA Tournament. We’re the automatic qualifier. We had the best record in the league. We obviously feel like we deserve the best seed.”
On Saturday, the Lobos’ Drew Gordon got something he thought he deserved — the tournament’s most valuable player.
After spending much of the week expressing his displeasure about not winning the regular season MWC player-of-the-year award, Gordon got the tournament’s top honor with a combined 46 points and 32 rebounds in the three wins — the first two against seventh-seeded Air Force and third-seeded and 20th-ranked UNLV.
Gordon, a 6-foot-9 senior, had 12 points and 12 rebounds against San Diego State.
“Well, (I) won one out of two,” Gordon said, “so it’s not bad. I’ve been saying this whole time that we need to end up on top, be able to look back and kind of laugh at some of the honors that weren’t awarded to our team.”
On Saturday, Gordon struggled offensively — getting his shot blocked three times in the first half and finishing the game 5-of-14 with four turnovers — but Snell and Phillip McDonald made the most critical plays.
Snell had eight points in the Lobos’ 15-4 game-opening run, including a pair of 3-pointers. Snell was also running SDSU’s league player of the year Jamaal Franklin in circles, while the Lobos gave Franklin a pounding when the Aztecs had the ball.
Franklin finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds, but was 6-of-14 from the floor and let his emotions get the best of him a number of times.
He did have a vicious dunk during a 6-0 run to pull the Aztecs (26-7) within 18-12 with nine minutes left in the half, but McDonald came off the bench to re-establish UNM’s momentum. The senior guard drew a charge, hit a 3, grabbed an offensive rebound and had two assists to back-up post Cameron Bairstow within a four-minute stretch, and the Lobos built a 34-23 lead at the half.
New Mexico built the lead to 54-39 in the second half before Tapley hit four 3s in the final 5-HALF minutes. Tapley had a game-high 25 points. He and Franklin also made the all-tournament team.
SDSU got as close as 61-55 with 1:38 remaining, but Demetrius Walker and Kendall Williams put the game away from the foul line, where they went a combined 15-of-20.
Williams finished with 14 points and six assists while McDonald had eight points. Walker and Bairstow each scored seven.
UNLV’s Mike Moser was the other member of the five-man all-tournament team.
Journal’s all-tournament team ballot:
Drew Gordon, UNM; Tony Snell, UNM; Jamaal Franklin, SDSU; Chase Tapley, SDSU; Demetrius Walker, UNM
MVP — Gordon.
NEW MEXICO (27-6)
Hardeman 0-0 0-0 0, Greenwood 2-7 0-0 6, Williams 3-6 8-12 14, Snell 5-7 0-0 14, Gordon 5-14 2-3 12, Adams 0-0 0-0 0, Fenton 0-2 0-0 0, McDonald 3-6 0-0 8, Walker 0-4 7-8 7, Bairstow 2-6 3-4 7. Totals 20-52 20-27 68.
SAN DIEGO ST. (26-7)
Thames 1-6 2-2 4, Shelton 1-3 0-0 2, Rahon 0-8 0-0 0, J. Franklin 6-14 3-5 16, Tapley 10-21 0-1 25, L. Franklin 1-2 0-0 2, Green 3-5 2-2 8, Stephens 1-3 0-1 2. Totals 23-62 7-11 59.
Halftime—New Mexico 34-23. 3-Point Goals—New Mexico 8-18 (Snell 4-6, McDonald 2-3, Greenwood 2-5, Fenton 0-1, Walker 0-1, Williams 0-2), San Diego St. 6-19 (Tapley 5-9, J. Franklin 1-4, Thames 0-1, Shelton 0-1, Rahon 0-4). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—New Mexico 37 (Gordon 12), San Diego St. 39 (J. Franklin 10). Assists—New Mexico 15 (Williams 6), San Diego St. 9 (Thames 4). Total Fouls—New Mexico 14, San Diego St. 23. A—12,168.