LAS VEGAS, Nev. — For the second straight season, Jamaal Franklin got all the hype in the Mountain West Conference, while former prep school teammate Tony Snell quietly settled for the glory.
Snell, New Mexico’s unassuming junior swingman, hit five 3-pointers, scored a game-high 17 points and shut down Franklin — the back-to-back all-league first team selection — on the other end of the court leading the Lobos to a 60-50 win over San Diego State in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals.
It is the second year in a row UNM (28-5) has beaten the Aztecs (22-10) in the tournament — last year in the title game, while Friday’s win puts the Lobos in today’s championship game against UNLV, which beat Colorado State, 75-65.
“He’s talented, and I think he’s just starting to realize how good he is and how much better he can be at both ends of the floor,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said.
The Lobos erupted to start the second half with a 14-2 scoring run, turning a 29-20 lead at the break into a 43-22 lead thanks to three consecutive 3-pointers from Snell, the final coming with 16:14 left in the game and bringing the raucous crowd of nearly 18,000 to its feat.
But it was less about Snell’s offense and more about his defense on Franklin that UNM head coach Steve Alford said set the tone for Friday’s semifinal win.
“Obviously Jamaal is a great player,” Alford said. “I think he’s 10-of-41 in our three games now. Tony Snell has had that assignment all three games.”
Franklin averaged 17.3 points and shot 42.4 percent in non-UNM games this season. In three games against the Lobos, the 2012 Mountain West Player of the Year averaged 11.3 points and shot 24.4 percent from the field with Snell guarding him.
Friday, he scored eight points on 3-of-12 shooting, while also pulling down a game-high 12 rebounds and dishing out five assists.
“I tried to use my length to try to stop him from shooting and driving,” Snell said. “I had my teammates right behind me to help me if he drove past me.”
Anytime Franklin or any Aztecs player was able to drive into the lane Friday night, Alex Kirk was waiting for them.
The 7-foot UNM center had 15 points and four blocked shots, while teaming up with forward Cameron Bairstow (16 points, 11 rebounds) to dominate the paint against the Aztecs.
“You’ve got Alex, who just anchors our defense” Alford said. “First-team, All-Defensive team, and in my opinion, he’s the best defender in the league. He blocked four shots tonight and probably changed another 14. He just does a lot of good things for us.”
The Aztecs shot 31.3 percent from the field (20-of-64) and never held a lead in the game. In three games vs. UNM this season, the Aztecs averaged 55 points, nearly 15 below their season scoring average of 69.8 points per game.
UNM, meanwhile, shot 41.2 percent from the floor (21-of-51) and assisted on 15 of 21 made field goals. Mountain West Player of the Year Kendall Williams dished out six assists.
“We were beaten today by a really, really good team that can hurt you inside and outside,” Fisher said. “They did that to us tonight. …
“We had a goal to be playing on Saturday, where we’d been the last four years, and we’re not. So it hurts. It should hurt.”
A Chase Tapley 3-pointer, followed by a deep jumper cut UNM’s lead to single digits at 55-46 with 4:36 to go, but that was as close as SDSU would get the rest of the game.
San Diego State got 14 points apiece from Tapley and point guard Xavier Thames. Starting forward J.J. O’Brien, who averaged 11 points and 9.5 rebounds in two regular-season games against UNM, was shut down by Kirk and Bairstow to the tune of zero points and zero rebounds on Friday night.
As for UNM, a team still playing with the hopes of a top two seed in the NCAA Tournament, Alford said there is still plenty of work to be done in today’s title game.
“By winning this game, we set ourselves up to win another championship,” Alford said. “We’re what, 33 games into this and we’ve yet to lose back-to-back games. Again, I just couldn’t’ be more proud of our student-athletes.”