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Tenacious Snell wins this matchup of No. 21s

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This time, this one time, this one particular time, Jamaal Franklin got caught napping.
Or maybe he turned his head at just the wrong moment. Or perhaps he was just a little bit tired from chasing his buddy Tony Snell over and under all those screens.
Maybe he was a bit frustrated by Snell’s in-your-jersey defense.
In any case, Snell drilled an open jumper over a too-late Franklin early in the second half.
Was that the key basket in Snell’s New Mexico Lobos’ eventual 70-60 victory over Franklin’s San Diego State Aztecs on Wednesday at the Pit? Not necessarily. Alex Kirk’s 25 points probably had something to do with the outcome.
Did Snell’s defense on his former prep-school teammate constitute the key matchup? Maybe not. As a team, the Aztecs were 4-of-23 from beyond 3-point line.
Still, Snell’s efforts got raves from UNM coach Steve Alford.
“Terrific,” Alford said of Snell’s defensive work against Franklin, the reigning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year. “That’s the maturing of Tony Snell.”
So, this is 21-on-21, Take 2.
Two years ago, under circumstances almost identical to Wednesday night — a late game on deadline at the Pit between New Mexico and San Diego State — I chose to focus on the duel between the Lobos’ Snell and the Aztecs’ Franklin. Both wear No. 21.
Both freshmen at the time, both key players for their respective teams, the pair had been teammates for a year at Westwind Prep in Phoenix and were close friends.
Problem was, Alford crossed me up by guarding the 6-foot-5 Franklin not with the 6-7 Snell, but principally with 6-8 forward A.J. Hardeman.
Both 21s struggled that night, but Franklin hit a couple of late 3-pointers and the Aztecs left Albuquerque with a 75-70 victory.
This time, Alford cooperated by guarding Franklin with Snell. Aztecs coach Steve Fisher followed suit.
One would have to say Franklin had the better of the matchup in the first half, scoring eight points and grabbing four rebounds. Yet, he was 2-of-6 from the field, 1-of-5 on 3-pointers.
Snell, meanwhile, scored just two first-half points with no rebounds but did have two assists.
Both 21s spent a few minutes on the bench during the first half, and there was considerable switching on defense.
Would the battle truly be joined in the second half?
Yes.
With 18:11 left, after chasing Snell through screen after screen, Franklin lost his concentration for a split-second. Snell took advantage, giving the Lobos a 33-28 lead. That was the on-switch to a 17-5 UNM run that left SDSU trailing 48-33 with 12:02 left.
“I thought (Snell) did a really good job moving without the ball tonight,” Alford said.
The Aztecs cut the deficit to five with 4:34 left but could get no closer.
The head-to-head matchup wasn’t quite over. Franklin hit a circus shot underneath over Snell, but later missed a Snell-contested short jumper. Snell escaped Franklin for an open 3 with 10:30 left, but missed.
Seconds later, Fisher took Franklin out. When he came back, Alford had gone to a big lineup with 6-9 Cameron Bairstow and Kirk, a 7-footer.
Fisher at first tried to match up big on big, but when that was ineffective he went to a smaller lineup with Franklin guarding Bairstow. Alford put Bairstow on Franklin. Essentially, that was the end of the 21-on-21 duel.
Franklin, averaging 17.2 points per game, finished with 16 but shot 3-of-13 from the field.
Snell went to the locker room with 10 points — and the victory.
At game’s end, the two friends gave each other an extended hug.
That Snell had stayed almost that close to Franklin during the game, Alford said, is one reason the Lobos are 24-4 this morning.
“He could not guard Franklin or anybody else the way he’s been guarding this year two years ago,” Alford said. “… His maturing as a basketball player has really happened at the defensive end.
“Tony’s an all-round great player.”
Franklin, Snell’s friend and rival, probably wouldn’t argue.

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