Fresno St.-New Mexico Preview
While New Mexico was bummed after failing to capture the Mountain West regular-season title, winning a third straight conference tournament would surely be a nice consolation prize.
Coming off a first-round bye, the 20th-ranked Lobos look to begin another deep run in the tournament when they face Fresno State in the quarterfinals on Thursday night in Las Vegas.
Second-seeded New Mexico (24-6) is set to take the court for the first time since blowing a 16-point lead over the final 12 minutes Saturday against No. 8 San Diego State, falling 51-48 with the regular-season championship on the line.
"It’s a bad pill to swallow. It’s the short end of the stick," coach Craig Neal told the school’s official website. "I told the guys, get your head up. You had an unbelievable season. It was one of those games where (the refs) let us play and we didn’t adjust to it. We had a chance to win the game and we didn’t make enough plays.
"It’s a tough learning experience for our guys. … It’s just one of those things, but we have another season to go."
Senior standout Cameron Bairstow had 20 points and Alex Kirk added 14 to go with 11 rebounds, but neither player attempted a shot over the final 12 minutes. Last season’s Mountain West player of the year Kendall Williams matched a season low with seven points while shooting 3 of 10.
"It’s up to the guys and the coaching staff to stay positive about it all and move on to the next one," said Bairstow, leading the conference with 20.3 points per game.
New Mexico will try to regroup in tournament play, where it’s gone 6-0 over the previous two seasons. That doesn’t bode well for the seventh-seeded Bulldogs (17-15), who have been outscored by an average of 14.7 points in dropping all three meetings against the Lobos since joining the Mountain West last season.
New Mexico is seeking a fifth straight victory in the series after winning 89-78 at Fresno State on Jan. 18. Bairstow led five Lobos in double figures with 22 points as New Mexico shot 53.1 percent and held the Bulldogs to 36.7 percent.
Fresno State remains alive after storming back to beat Air Force 61-59 in Wednesday’s opening round. Senior Tyler Johnson had 19 points and a career best-tying 12 rebounds as the Bulldogs erased a 15-point deficit over the final 6:36.
"We know what our capabilities are. We know that we’ve been playing as well as anybody down the stretch," said Johnson, whose team has won nine of 11. "The game’s played for 40 minutes. We’re going to fight for every single one of them. I think we’re a dangerous team."
While the Bulldogs were all smiles afterward, they know they face an extremely tough challenge Thursday.
"We’re playing one of the better teams not only in our league but in the country," coach Rodney Terry said. "You get a chance to savor this moment for one night. … You get a chance to keep it, win or lose, one night, on to the next opponent.
"We’re going to have to play our best game of the year offensively and defensively and leave it on the floor for 40 minutes."
Fresno State has dropped 14 straight against Top 25 teams dating to 2003, including three games this season by an average of 13.3 points.