SAN DIEGO — San Diego State fans went with a blackout.
The No. 10 San Diego State Aztecs then went ahead and turned out the lights on No. 21 New Mexico’s two-year reign as kings of the Mountain West Conference.
Behind a stifling pressure defense down the stretch and before an energized sold-out crowd of 12,414 in Viejas Arena that rivaled even the best of Pit games, at least for one night, SDSU rallied for a 51-48 victory on Saturday to claim the outright Mountain West men’s basketball championship.
“It’s a tough learning experience for our guys,” Lobos head coach Craig Neal said. “They’re hurting right now.”
Midway through the second half, it certainly didn’t look like the Lobos would be hurting. In fact, after a 15-0 run put the Lobos up 41-25 with 12 minutes to play, it seemed as though the Lobos might be preparing to size up for a new set of championship rings.
Instead, during a timeout with 11:39 remaining in the game, SDSU’s veteran head coach Steve Fisher switched his defense to a 1-3-1 zone with the long-armed, 6-foot-7 Dwayne Polee at the top of the zone. That almost inexplicably flustered the usually composed, veteran Lobos, who showed poise down the stretch of games the past two seasons in their title runs.
On Saturday, however, things were certainly different.
The Aztecs closed the game on a 26-7 run spearheaded by points in transition off turnovers, and the Lobos never seemed to recover.
“When things went south, I felt like we didn’t do a good job staying positive and keeping composed,” UNM senior power forward Cameron Bairstow said.
Through the first 29 minutes, it seemed to be all Lobos thanks to their frontcourt duo of Bairstow and Alex Kirk, who at one point led SDSU themselves in scoring 33-25. In the final 12 minutes, however, the duo had just one point as the Lobos couldn’t seem to get the ball inside anymore.
“It was definitely the 1-3-1, and the full-court pressure sped a lot of guys up,” Bairstow said. “That’s exactly what they’re trying to do. We went away from what was working for the most part for the game, which was me and Alex. I felt like that was the key for the game.”
Bairstow and Kirk did finish with 34 points combined and 18 rebounds. But Xavier Thames, SDSU’s senior guard who made a late push at Bairstow for Mountain West Player of the Year, had 10 of his game-high 23 points in the final 9:29, including a pair of free throws with 9.0 seconds remaining. That seemed to seal the win, and the Aztecs’ title.
“It was a very hard-fought game and they changed the tempo on us,” Neal said. “They did some things to us. They played a 1-3-1 and we struggled with it. I thought we would be able to handle it. We didn’t do a very good job with that.”
Bairstow’s turnaround jumper at the buzzer at the end of the first half gave UNM a 26-20 lead going into the break. UNM had six first-half turnovers. In the second half, they committed 10 more, almost all in the final 12 minutes.
“We did a couple things,” Neal added. “We got Alex the lob where he got the foul (with under a minute to play). We just weren’t going out and making two guys play us and hitting the open guys. We just let the guy trap us and kind of panicked. We’ve got to learn from that because I’m sure we’re going to see it again.”
Still, UNM had its chances. After a Deshawn Delaney 3-pointer gave UNM a 45-44 lead, a Thames bucket put SDSU back up 46-44. Kirk then missed two free throws with 59.1 seconds remaining that would have tied or put UNM ahead.
A JJ O’Brien free throw with 38 seconds left put SDSU up 47-45 with 38 seconds left, and the Lobos chose to work the clock down to 9 seconds for a long Kendall Williams 3-point attempt that drew back iron. SDSU rebounded and sealed the game with two Thames free throws.
Williams, last year’s MWC Player of the Year, struggled Saturday with seven points, four assists and five turnovers. Reserve guard Cullen Neal had four turnovers off the bench against the SDSU pressure.