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Aztecs Eliminate UNM in MWC Semifinal

ROBERTO E. ROSALES/JOURNAL New Mexico’s Dairese Gary collapses in dismay after his desperation length-of-the-court heave at the end of regulation against San Diego State missed the target. The loss ousted the Lobos from the MWC tourney.

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – So much for Sweet 16.

As far as winning streaks are concerned.

The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team, however, is still bubbling with confidence about its NCAA Tournament chances despite losing a 72-69 heartbreaker to San Diego State in Friday night’s semifinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament.

Selection Sunday
Party at the Pit: 3 p.m.. TV: CBS, 4 p.m.

The loss ended the Lobos’ 15-game winning streak – just two off the most in school history – and denied them a spot in today’s title game.

Top-seeded UNM simply came out of the short end of another great college basketball game, and anyone who witnessed it had to be impressed by the level of play by both teams.

“We feel really good,” UNM coach Steve Alford said. “I don’t know how you couldn’t. … I just thought it was a great basketball game. Unfortunately, we came up one possession short. But we’ve been on a great run.”

For one of the few times this year, it wasn’t the Lobos who made the most crucial play in the clutch. While they made plenty, the Aztecs made one more, and in the process probably nailed down an NCAA Tournament berth.

The loss was the Lobos’ first in 13 games decided by six points or less. And it wasn’t decided until the final second, when the Lobos’ Dairese Gary drove to the hole with his team down 70-69. It’s a play the 6-foot-1 first-team all-conference guard has made all season. But this time Gary lost control of the ball and couldn’t get a decent shot off as the final horn sounded.

“I knew we only had, like, seven seconds, so it was just get the ball and go,” Gary said. “The ball got loose. I didn’t know how much time there was, so I grabbed it and tried to put it in, and it didn’t go in.”

Officials huddled, watched a video replay and said UNM’s Will Brown was able to foul SDSU’s Kawhi Leonard with 0.7 left. Leonard made two free throws for the final points, and then the Lobos’ Darington Hobson inbounded the ball to Gary, whose 80-foot desperation heave didn’t come close.

“Nobody likes to lose,” said Gary, who had a team-high 17 points. “One of our goals was to win a (regular season) conference championship, then go and win the conference tournament. But now our other goal was to get to the Big Dance. That’s where we’re going.”

The Aztecs (24-8) have handed eighth-ranked New Mexico (29-4) half of its losses this season. SDSU won 74-64 in San Diego before the Lobos won 88-86 in overtime last month in the Pit.

The Lobos find out Sunday what seed they will get in the NCAA Tournament. They are expected to receive a 3 or 4, which would give them a great chance to win back-to-back games in the event for the first time ever and reach the Sweet 16.

San Diego State took control of Friday’s game midway through the second half with a 10-0 run to lead 62-55. Billy White capped the blitz with a slam dunk after the Lobos turned it over in their backcourt. The run could have gone to 13-0 and put the Lobos down by 10, but Chase Tapley missed an open 3 with just less than 7 minutes remaining. That gave the Lobos life, and they made the most of it.

Roman Martinez hit the 200th 3-pointer of his career to start a 9-0 run that put the Lobos up 64-62 with 2:38 remaining.

But SDSU responded with a jumper by Malcolm Thomas to tie it and, after Martinez missed an open 3-point attempt, took the lead for good on a three-point play by White on a fast break.

D.J. Gay, who missed a free throw at the end of regulation last month in the Pit that prevented the Aztecs from winning that one, hit a 3 with 1:07 left to give the Aztecs a 70-66 lead. But Gary came right back with a 3 to pull the Lobos within 70-69.

SDSU worked the clock on its next possession, and Gay missed a 3 with 8 seconds left to give the Lobos a shot.

After each team called a timeout, the Lobos got the ball to Gary, who drove the length of the floor but lost the handle as he went to the hoop.

“One team has to lose. It would have been criminal had we lost on that last drive,” said Aztecs coach Steve Fisher. “But it happened before and it will happen again. We were fortunate to hang on and get the victory.”

White led all scorers with 28 points. Hobson had 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for UNM.