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Utah State sends Lobos home

UNM’s Vance Jackson, front, looks for room to maneuver against Utah State on Thursday. AP PHOTO

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – This was the way it was supposed to be.

A high-energy Lobos press defense causing havoc, forcing turnovers and letting the thousands of screaming Lobo fans in “Pit West” create the type of atmosphere that makes March a magical month for college basketball fans.

In the end, after the best basketball game played thus far in the Mountain West tournament, the second-seeded Utah State Aggies, co-champion in the regular season, beat seventh-seeded UNM Lobos 91-83 on Thursday night in the Thomas & Mack Center.

The Lobos end their tumultuous season while the Aggies advance to the MWC tournament semifinals today.

For Lobo seniors Anthony Mathis and Dane Kuiper, who played their final game as Lobos after four years of turmoil, a coaching change, the program crumbling, seemingly being built back up again and then this season of disappointment, Thursday was what this was season was supposed to be.

So why wasn’t it?

“I just feel like this tournament, we were really connected,” Mathis said. “You could really tell that everybody was playing for one another. … At times during the season, I felt like when we ran into our bumps in the road, we were just playing selfish, trying to be stat-sheet stuffers and doing our own thing.

“That obviously doesn’t work as we learned the hard way.”

Thursday, the Lobos brought back the full-court press that was a staple a season ago and forced a Utah State team that averaged 12.4 turnovers per game this season into 24 turnovers.

The Aggies (26-6), boasting the league’s Player, Coach, Freshman and Defensive players of the year, were on their heels throughout as UNM sophomore Vance Jackson, again playing much of the night at the four spot as opposed to the wing position he has preferred much of the season, continued his coming-out party.

One night after his 26-point explosion helped the Lobos beat 10th-seeded Wyoming, Jackson scored a game-high 25 points and dished out five assists in 35 minutes.

Back-to-back UNM 3-pointers by Jackson and then Mathis with 15:08 left in the game pushed UNM’s lead to 52-44.

Then, with 14:49 left, on a play clearly out of bounds on Utah State’s Neemias Queta, Paul Weir ran onto the court during a dead ball and was called for a technical for arguing the call.

The ensuing technical free throws by Sam Merrill (23 points in the game) and layup by Diogo Brito cut the lead to 52-48.

Three minutes later, the Aggies had tied the game.

But the game was far from over.

The two teams went back and forth down the stretch until a Brito 3-pointer with 2:26 left gave USU a four-point cushion that it would ride down the stretch for the win.

The Aggies enjoyed a 45-21 free throw advantage and outrebounded UNM 46-28.

Kuiper said he was happy the team showed one more glimpse of things to come for the program under Weir this week in Las Vegas.

“Just never give up on anybody no matter how things are going,” Kuiper said.

Weir, who in two seasons has gone from hero to goat in some eyes, said this was a season of tough lessons for him and his players.

“Everything that’s happened poorly in my life I would never take back, because it allowed me to get where I am today,” Weir said. “I told the guys we can sit here and look at this season as a disappointment or this game as a disappointment or individual players being disappointing, or you’re going to look back it one day and say, ‘Man. That’s what made me great or what made me do this.’ …

“The only two that have to pay the price are Dane and Anthony because they wanted to feel us turning the corner in their senior year.”

Kuiper and Mathis, the only two seniors on the roster, both said they think the program is headed in the right direction.

Click here for the box score.