LAS VEGAS, Nev. — New coach. New team. New era. Same results in Las Vegas.
Well, except for the net-around-the-neck look.
For the third straight season, the New Mexico Lobos spent a Saturday in mid-March cutting down the nets after a Mountain West Conference tournament championship win, becoming the first team to win the event three years in a row.
Behind a tournament MVP performance of 17 points and nine rebounds from senior power forward Cameron Bairstow and 16 more from Kendall Williams, including a dagger of a 3-pointer with 29.4 seconds remaining in the game, the 20th-ranked Lobos knocked off No. 8 San Diego State 64-58 in front of another pro-Lobo crowd of 13,789 in the Thomas & Mack Center.
“I’ve got terrific kids, a terrific team that’s believed in me,” said first-year UNM head coach Craig Neal, who unlike his predecessor, Steve Alford, opted not to drape a net around his neck in the postgame news conference.
The Lobos and Aztecs, and their stars — Bairstow and MWC Player of the Year Xavier Thames, respectively — had been on a collision course for Saturday night’s title tilt since early January when league play began, and the two programs quickly established themselves as a cut above the rest of the league.
And as luck would have it, the schedule played out that the top two teams in the conference played each other three times in a 21-day span, with the Lobos winning in the Pit on Feb. 22 and again Saturday.
But the loss in between — a 51-48 setback in the regular-season finale March 8 in San Diego that ended UNM’s two-year run as regular-season league champions — came in such dramatic fashion that the Lobos fielded questions all week about whether they’d be able to handle the high-pressure defense of the Aztecs.
After UNM took a 27-22 lead into halftime Saturday, the Aztecs came out with that defensive pressure again amped up, leading the Lobos to look every bit as lost as they were a week prior when they squandered a 16-point lead in the final 11:39 thanks to the Aztecs swarming defense.
In the first 2:57 of the second half, UNM had seven possessions — one missed shot, six turnovers, five fouls — and saw its five-point halftime lead erased as SDSU took a 30-27 lead.
But unlike a week ago, the Lobos weathered the storm.
“I think the timing of it was more fortunate for us this time,” Williams said of SDSU’s flurry of defensive intensity. “Last game they timed it just right, and we didn’t have an answer for it. This time they punched us in the mouth to start (the second half), and we were able to respond throughout the half. That was the big difference.”
Dwayne Polee II, SDSU’s reserve wing player who spearheaded the defensive effort a week ago, was again a thorn in the Lobos’ side down the stretch Saturday. His 3-point play with 1:21 left in the game gave the Aztecs a 57-56 lead.
Then, the Lobos turned to their two stars.
A Bairstow 3-point play with 1:15 left gave UNM the lead back at 59-57. Then, after SDSU again switched to the 1-3-1 zone that spelled doom a week prior after a timeout, the Lobos answered with Williams hitting a fadeaway, 25-foot 3-pointer to give UNM a 62-57 lead. Two more Bairstow free throws with 13.2 seconds left served as insurance.
Bairstow, who heard chants of “MVP! MVP!” throughout the tournament, raised the index finger on each hand high in the air after both free throws, and the celebration was on. He said his three-game tear in the tournament (20.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game average) was coincidental to his being snubbed for regular-season Player of the Year honors.
“It wasn’t about proving a point,” Bairstow said. “You just got to understand it’s all about team success. That’s what it is. All the accolades that come off that are a bonus. At the end of the day it’s all based on team success.”
And the Lobos, once again, have plenty of that heading into the NCAA Tournament. They’ll find out their seeding and opponent this afternoon.
UNM out-rebounded SDSU 38-31 and got 17 second-chance points off 12 offensive rebounds. The Lobos had 15 turnovers, 11 in the second half, but overcame that thanks to three players scoring in double figures — Bairstow (17), Williams (16) and Hugh Greenwood (12). Greenwood added five assists, and Alex Kirk had eight points, 11 rebounds and two blocked shots.
SDSU got 15 points from Thames on 6-of-16 shooting, 14 from Polee and 13 from Winston Shepard. The Aztecs shot just 35.7 percent from the field to 40.9 percent for UNM.
ALL-TOURNAMENT: Bairstow (MVP), Kirk and Williams were the three Lobos who made the all-tournament team, joining San Diego State’s Thames and Polee.
WELCOME TO THE CLUB: Alek Kirk’s eight points gives the junior 1,007 for his UNM career, becoming the 32nd player in program history to pass 1,000 points in a career. Cam Bairstow joined that club earlier this season.