- Associated Press - Sunday, March 9, 2014

SAN DIEGO (AP) - It took a 1-3-1 zone defense, of all things, for No. 10 San Diego State to complete a remarkable comeback against No. 21 New Mexico that clinched the outright Mountain West Conference title.

SDSU was getting manhandled inside by New Mexico’s big men, Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk, and fell behind by 16 points with 12:05 to play.

Coach Steve Fisher finally agreed with assistant coach Justin Hutson’s suggestion to go to a 1-3-1 zone. The game turned just like that, with SDSU going on a 19-1 run that helped it win 51-48 Saturday night.

After Hutson initially suggested the zone, Fisher was hesitant, so the Aztecs didn’t go to it.

“So after another dunk and a layup and a dunk, I said, ‘Timeout. We’re going to the 1-3-1,’ Fisher said, referring to, of course, to baskets by Kirk and Bairstow. “For some crazy reason, it worked. They no longer were able to pull the ball into the low post. I know they were taken off guard, so were our kids. It got us obviously back into the game.

“We fought and fought and fought and made plays,” Fisher said. “We got a super, super win that was obviously tremendously important. The winner hangs a banner, the loser is the loser. The two best teams played and tonight we found a way to get a win.”

Xavier Thames scored 23 points for SDSU (27-3, 16-2), which clinched the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament in Las Vegas. Josh Davis, SDSU’s other senior, had nine rebounds and six points, including some big plays during the 19-1 run that pulled the Aztecs back into the game.

Thames and Matt Shrigley each made two free throws in the final 9 seconds to keep the Aztecs ahead.

The fans rushed the court and black and red confetti fell from the ceiling at Viejas Arena, where the Aztecs were 15-1 this season. Their only home loss was to Arizona on Nov. 14.

The Aztecs, who have earned at least a share of the MWC title three times in four years, can go entire seasons without playing zone. They first used one this season when they rallied from 14 points down at Boise State on Feb. 5 to win 67-65.

“That’s the only zone we have in right now,” Fisher said, who added that the Aztecs usually stay in zone for only one possession, not long stretches. “Even I thought we defended them well, but they’re big and strong and good. … No harm, no foul when you’re down by 16 and it doesn’t seem like we have a chance.”

How did the Aztecs do it?

“The same way we always do - with defense,” Winston Shepard said.

“That was tough,” New Mexico coach Craig Neal said. “They went zone and we just didn’t make the adjustment. We had some players, like Kendall Williams in foul trouble, and we couldn’t guard Thames. Thames got it going and our defense wasn’t the same. You’ve got to give them credit; they played well. We just couldn’t make the adjustment and make things happen.”

Bairstow scored 20 points and keyed two big runs for New Mexico (24-6, 15-3).

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