SAN DIEGO — It was one half of what might have been, followed by 20 minutes of history.
Less than two weeks removed from an embarrassing 28-point blowout loss in the Pit to the No. 4 San Diego State Aztecs, the UNM Lobos on Tuesday night went toe-to-toe with the nation’s last remaining undefeated team, looking the part of the Mountain West championship contender it thought it would be entering this season.
But, not unlike the Lobos’ season itself, a promising first half turned to frustration and embarrassment as the Aztecs did what it’s done to every team its taken the court with this season.
Matt Mitchell and Yanni Wetzell combined for 42 points and 21 rebounds and SDSU outscored the Lobos by 21 in the final 20 minutes to cruise to an 82-59 victory that clinched for the Aztecs their seventh Mountain West Conference championship with an unprecedented two and a half weeks still remaining in the regular season.
“I thought their defense was exceptional and it really cranked up in the second half,” UNM coach Paul Weir said. “It might have been a little bit of us fading. I thought we gave so much in that first half. We obviously came out trying to do that in the second half. They just wear on you.”
SDSU improves to 25-0 overall and 14-0 in the Mountain West. Combined with CSU’s home loss earlier in the night, the Aztecs earned an outright title (a win over UNM would have at least guaranteed a shared title).
UNM falls to 17-8 overall and 6-7 in league games. The Lobos have lost six of their last eight games with five of the six losses being by 20 or more points (and each win being by an average of 27.5 points).
The 6-foot-6 Mitchell (22 points, 12 rebounds and scoring his 1,000th career point in the game) and 6-10 Wetzell (20 points, nine rebounds) exploited a Lobos frontcourt that is, as everyone knows by now, again playing without Carlton Bragg, the physical 6-foot-10 center who started the first 13 games of the season but has since been dismissed due to an aggravated DUI charge. In his place, starting center Corey Manigault did as good a job taking himself out of Tuesday’s game as the Aztecs did, earning a technical foul for trash-talking after a dunk less than three minutes into the game, playing fewer than 12 first-half minutes after picking up three total fouls and then being ejected in the second half after again earning a technical foul for talking trash with an Aztecs player.
The second technical, and subsequent ejection with 5:20 left in the game, was one referee Mike Reed tried to warn Weir about as Manigault was shooting free throws seconds before the ejection. Weir had Vance Jackson at the scorer’s table waiting to check in for Manigault, but Manigault missed the second free throw and the game didn’t stop for the player exchange to happen. Seconds later, Manigault kept talking, got the second technical and was ejected — walking straight off the court and into the Lobos’ locker room without looking back to the court.
Manigault followed Saturday’s career-high 28 points with nine points on 4-of-11 shooting and three turnovers and four fouls (two technicals) in 25 minutes on Tuesday night.
The Lobos, unable to win the game down low, did try to go guard-heavy much of the game, but it had diminishing returns down the stretch.
While the Lobos were 5-of-14 (35.7%) from 3-point range in the first half, the Lobos hit just 1-of-15 (6.7%) of their 3s in the final 20 minutes.
On the other end, the Aztecs hit six of their 10 3s in the game in the second half and shot 10-of-28 in the game from the arc.
SDSU out-rebounded UNM 43-37.
The lone bright spot for the Lobos overall, aside from the impressive first half, was Vante Hendrix scoring a career-high 20 points in 24 minutes off the bench.
BOX SCORE: San Diego State 82, New Mexico 59
UP NEXT: UNLV at UNM, Saturday, 4 p.m.