New Mexico-San Diego St. Preview
San Diego State denied New Mexico from capturing a third straight Mountain West Conference regular-season crown one week ago.
Now it can gain revenge against the team that has eliminated it from the previous two conference tournaments.
The eighth-ranked Aztecs and No. 20 Lobos meet for the third time in a 22-day span Saturday, with the MWC tournament championship on the line in Las Vegas.
It's only fitting that these teams will vie for a title since that's what they did last Saturday in their regular-season finale in San Diego, entering with 15-2 conference records. The Aztecs were seeking to avenge a 58-44 loss in Albuquerque on Feb. 22, in which they shot a season-low 32.3 percent and allowed Lobos star Cameron Bairstow to score 26 points.
San Diego State (29-3) was seemingly on the verge of another defeat, trailing 41-25 with 12:05 left while getting manhandled inside by Bairstow and Alex Kirk. That's when coach Steve Fisher decided to rely on assistant coach Justin Hutson's suggestion to go to a 1-3-1 zone.
That move turned the game around, with the Aztecs using a 19-1 run to gain the upper hand en route to a 51-48 victory. The Lobos made 2 of 14 3-pointers.
"I think they'll be excited to get another shot," said New Mexico coach Craig Neal about facing San Diego State again. "We split with them, they won at home and we won at home and hopefully it will feel like a home game for us tomorrow."
The Lobos (26-6) worked specifically on solving the 1-3-1 in practice this past week, according to guard Hugh Greenwood.
"We're more than ready for the 1-3-1," Greenwood said. "We've practiced it, we've got a great coaching staff. We've made the adjustments and we're looking forward to it."
The adjustment could include getting the ball more to Bairstow, who made 11 of 18 shots in the first matchup but was limited to half as many attempts in the second contest even though he still scored 20 points. Kirk added 14 points and 11 boards last Saturday.
"With New Mexico they have two guys they can throw the ball to in the block," Fisher said. "Then they have great experience."
San Diego State has won six straight, beating host school UNLV 59-51 in Friday's semifinals. The Aztecs know another meeting with the Lobos won't be easy.
"If we play New Mexico, it's going to be another hard-fought game," top scorer Xavier Thames said. "They're a great team, have a great coaching staff."
Thames scored 23 points last weekend versus the Lobos after he was horrendous in the first meeting, finishing with seven points on 3-of-15 shooting.
New Mexico beat San Diego State 68-59 in the 2012 MWC title game and won 60-50 over the Aztecs in the semifinals last year. But it's the way the Lobos' hopes for another regular-season crown ended that has remained in their memory.
"It's been in the back of our minds since that game," Greenwood said. "But with us and our season, we've always taken it one step at a time, one game at a time."
The Lobos advanced with Friday's 70-67 victory over Boise State. Bairstow scored 23 points, making 15 of 18 at the line.