This was certainly no coronation.
But it was a very loud, very clear statement reminding everyone the New Mexico Lobos still have a say who wears the Mountain West Conference crown they’ve owned for the past two seasons.
With an inspired defensive effort in front of a thunderous sellout Pit crowd, Cameron Bairstow scored 26 points and the Lobos blew out No. 6 San Diego State on Saturday night 58-44 to draw even with the Aztecs in the league standings.
The emotion in the Pit spilled over at the game’s end as San Diego State (23-3, 12-2) and UNM (21-5, 12-2) players had to be separated before coming to blows in the postgame handshake line. That preceded a Lobo fan throwing a paper cup at SDSU players leaving the Pit floor. San Diego State coach Steve Fisher thought there was water in the cup, and the fan was pointed out emphatically by UNM head coach Craig Neal.
“We don’t do that here,” Neal repeated a few times in a postgame talk with reporters.
If the fan is a season-ticket holder, said UNM athletic director Paul Krebs, “he’s done.”
Before the postgame distractions, it was very clear that the Lobos wanted to remind the country they were the clear preseason favorite to win the league for a reason, even if it took a while for them to get to their current level.
“They are, in my opinion, the best team that we played this season,” said Fisher. “That includes Kansas. That includes Marquette. That includes Creighton. They’re a terrific team and they played that way tonight. I’m sure they’ll be ranked next week.”
The two teams get a rematch in the regular-season finale March 8 in San Diego’s Viejas Arena.
Some pitted Saturday’s matchup as the league’s top-rated offense (UNM) hosting the league’s best defense (SDSU). Neal didn’t care for that narrative.
“I don’t know what you guys watch or what you guys are thinking sometimes when you talk about our defense,” Neal said. “We’ve held the last nine teams under their average. So if that’s bad defense, then that’s bad defense, but our defense was terrific tonight.”
Midway through the second half, San Diego State was still shooting under 30 percent as second-half scoring runs of 9-0 and 12-0 for UNM opened a 50-26 lead when Cullen Neal banked in 3-pointer with 10:50 left to play.
SDSU turned up the defensive pressure in the final 10 minutes, using its full-court press to force eight second-half turnovers and improve its shooting percentage down the stretch with a few easy baskets in transition. SDSU shot 32.3 percent from the field and 2-of-10 (20 percent) from 3-point range.
While UNM shot 50 percent (25-of-50) in the game and hit four 3-pointers, it was the 17 offensive rebounds from SDSU, including 13 in the first half, that prevented a complete Aztecs meltdown in the Pit.
UNM went to Bairstow early and often once again. The senior power forward’s bucket with 10:38 left in the first half, his 10th point, opened an 18-10 lead, and the Lobos never really looked back.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, and I just said it on national TV (in a postgame interview on ESPN2), I’ve got the best power forward in the country playing for us in Cam Bairstow,” Neal said.
Kendall Williams scored 10 points for UNM’s second double-figure scorer. He added seven assists with only one turnover.
Cullen Neal, the coach’s freshman son who received Twitter messages of ill will from SDSU’s student cheering section “The Show” when hospitalized in August with a ruptured appendix, scored eight points off the Lobos bench.
“His appendix was good enough to make a shot,” Craig Neal said.
San Diego State’s league MVP candidate Xavier Thames was held to seven points on 3-of-15 shooting. Winston Shepard, once a UNM recruit, led SDSU with 10 points and was the team’s only double-figure scorer.
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