LAS VEGAS, Nev. – It wasn’t easy, but New Mexico got its rematch.
Cameron Bairstow scored 23 points and the Lobos defense held the high-powered Boise State Broncos under 40 percent shooting in a 70-67 Mountain West Conference tournament semifinal win in front of 15,135 in the Thomas & Mack Center.
No. 20 UNM, winners of the past two MWC tournament titles, will face No. 8 San Diego State today at 4 p.m. in the tournament title game, one week after the Aztecs rallied from 16 points down on their home court to beat the Lobos in the regular-season finale, 51-48, to secure the league’s regular-season crown and the top seed in this week’s tournament.
“I think they’ll be excited to get another shot,” UNM head coach Craig Neal said. “We split with them — they won at home, we won at home. Hopefully it will feel like a home game for us (Saturday).”
After SDSU (29-3) knocked off UNLV 59-51 in the first semifinal on Friday night, Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher said his team, like the Lobos (26-6), came to Las Vegas with only one result in mind.
“We came here to win three games,” Fisher said. “We came here to compete like crazy. We’ve done that for two. We got one to go.”
Bairstow, who was edged out for the league’s Player of the Year award last week by SDSU’s Xavier Thames, sank a pair of free throws with 3.8 seconds remaining as chants of “MVP! MVP!” poured down onto the court from the pro-Lobos crowd. Bairstow added eight rebounds and was 15-of-18 from the free-throw line.
“Good luck whoever draws them in the NCAA tournament,” Boise State head coach Leon Rice said.
“You’re not going to ‑‑ I’m not giving away with a scouting report here — but you’re not guarding Cameron Bairstow by yourself, one person, I don’t care who they play.”
A full-court desperation heave at the buzzer from Boise State fell well short, and the Lobos celebrated their return to the title game with as much relief as anything as they gave the Broncos several opportunities down the stretch.
Senior guard Kendall Williams, who has shot almost 80 percent from the free throw line this season and often been the player icing Lobo victories at the free throw line down the stretch of games, air-balled a free throw with 2:22 remaining, but then sank the next one. After Boise State’s Derrick Marks hit two free throws to pull within 61-59 at the other end, Williams, just 30 seconds removed from that airball, hit a contested 3-pointer from the corner of the court to put UNM back up 64-59 — a shot that seemed to take the air out of the Boise State rally at the time.
“When Kendall shot that shot, I thought, ‘Too tough. That’s too tough of a shot. He’s not going to make that,’” Rice said. “You have to give him credit. If he misses that, we’ve got a great chance.
“Again, that’s what great players do. They make those big shots. I consider Kendall a great player.”
Still, the Lobos couldn’t capitalize and close out the Broncos without plenty of drama. Williams, as he did in the first half following Rice drawing his first technical foul all season, missed two free throws with 31.8 remaining that could have put the Lobos up six points.
On the next trip down the court, Boise State senior Jeff Elorriaga hit a 3-pointer with 21.0 left, cutting the Lobos lead to 66-65. Without hesitation, depsite the obvious struggles of Williams at the line, Craig Neal saw too it the Lobos got the ball in his senior guard’s hands. Williams hit a pair of free throws for a 68-65 lead with 18.6 seoconds remaining and when Bairstow sank two more free throws with 3.8 remaining for a 70-67 lead, the Broncos’ upset chances were over.
“We’ve dealt with pressure like that before,” junior Lobo guard Hugh Greenwood said. “Every game in this (tournament is) close. Same as last year. We made plays when we needed to. You have to be careful giving those guys a chance “They can hit threes, make plays.”
Williams ended with 16 points on 5-of 12 shooting and 3-of-8 from the free throw line. UNM shot just 61.1 percent (22-of-36) from the charity stripe in the game, but those 22 made free throws were five more than Boise State even attempted. Williams statline of the night wasn’t his own, but the 2-of-9 shooting performance of Boise State junior Anthony Drmic, who was held to six points, all in the final 5:11 of the game, with Williams as his primary defender. That was one night after Williams drew the defensive assignment on Fresno State leading scorer Tyler Johnson, who was held to two points.
Deshawn Delaney added 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers for the Lobos, who shot 43.8 percent from the field. Junior center Alex Kirk had nine points, 11 rebounds and a block.
Boise State got 20 points from Derrick Marks and 16 more off the bench from Thomas Bropleh, who had 14 in the Broncos’ win in February over UNM in Idaho. Bropleh was ejected with 7:15 remaining in the game after game officials ruled his foul on Bairstow under the Lobos basket was a Flagrant 2.
“There’s no way he did that on purpose,” Neal said. “I think it was just an accident. … I just felt bad for him ’cause it wasn’t intentional. But it’s the rule.”
UNM out-rebounded the Broncos 37-34. Boise State’s bench outscored UNM’s 20-0.
At the end of the night, though, there wasn’t a statline the Lobos really cared about like they did knowing they get another crack at the Aztecs.
“It’s been in the back of our minds since that game,” Greenwood said, referring to the March 8 loss in San Diego. “But with us and with our season, we’ve always taken it one step at a time, one game at a time. (We) took care of Fresno, took care of Boise. Now we want a rematch. The city of Albuquerque wants a rematch. We’re definitely looking forward to the challenge.”
MORE HONORS: Bairstow, Williams and Kirk earlier in the day were named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-District 17 team. Bairstow and Williams were first-team selections, while Kirk was named to the second team of the district that included Mountain West schools.