LAS VEGAS (AP) - New Mexico won the Mountain West Conference tournament the last two seasons, and the Lobos weren’t prepared to let the title go.
Trailing by one with a little more than a minute left, Cameron Bairstow scored five of the Lobos’ last eight points to help 20th-ranked New Mexico win its third consecutive tournament title, with a 64-58 victory over No. 8 San Diego State in Saturday’s championship game.
Bairstow finished with 17 points, and the victory gives the Lobos the automatic berth into the NCAA tournament. The 6-foot-9 senior forward was named tournament MVP after averaging 20.3 points per game and 9.0 rebounds per game.
“In the regular season San Diego State was the best team,” Bairstow said. “I think in this tournament, we were the best team. (The MVP trophy) could have gone to a number of players, the guys sitting next to me. It wasn’t about proving a point. You just got to understand it’s all about team success. That’s what it is. All the accolades that come off that are a bonus. At the end of the day it’s all based on team success.”
The No. 2 seed in the Mountain West tournament is now 6-0 all-time when playing the No. 1 seed.
“I got terrific kids, a terrific team that’s believed in me, taking over a team that won back to back regular season and tournament championships,” said first-year New Mexico coach Craig Neal. “This is our third one. It’s very special to me.”
It didn’t come easy against the conference’s No. 1 defense, as New Mexico (27-6) had its five-point halftime lead disappear when the Aztecs opened the second half on an 8-0 run, to take a 30-27 lead.
Trailing 56-49 with 2:34 left in the game, the Aztecs went on an 8-0 run to go up one with 1:21 remaining. The run was culminated when Winston Shepard stole an inbounds pass, dished to Dwayne Polee II for a slam dunk. Polee was fouled and converted the three-point play.
With momentum seemingly shifted, Bairstow took over, driving on Josh Adams for a lay-in while drawing the foul. Bairstow converted the three-point play to give the Lobos the lead again. Polee’s layup attempt at the other end didn’t fall, Bairstow rebounded with 51 seconds left and Kendall Williams made a 3-pointer 30 seconds later to seal the win.
Williams added 16 points for the Lobos and moved up to No. 5 all-time on New Mexico’s career scoring list with 1,794 points, while Greenwood had 12.
“I think the timing of it was more fortunate for us this time,” Williams said. “Last game they timed it just right and we didn’t have an answer for it. This time they punched us in the mouth to start (the second half), and we were able to respond throughout the half. That was the big difference.”
After shooting 34.8 percent (8 of 23) from the field in the first half, the Lobos were 10 of 21 from the floor in the second half, including 4 of 9 from long-range. And despite having one of the more formidable frontcourts in the nation, led by Bairstow, San Diego State outscored the Lobos in the paint, 24-18. The Aztecs also outscored New Mexico off turnovers, 21-8, and with bench points, 16-4.
In a game that featured 10 ties and 12 lead changes, New Mexico’s seven point advantage at the 2:34 mark was the largest lead of the game.
“This was a tremendously hard fought game between two very good basketball teams,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “We’re disappointed that we didn’t get the opportunity to cut the nets down. But we’re proud of what we’ve done and how we’ve done it.
“We competed from wire to wire, and we just didn’t quite have enough to finish. But if we continue to play that way, we’ll have a chance to be playing after the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. That’s our goal now.”
San Diego State (29-4) got a team-high 15 points from Xavier Thames, the league’s regular-season player of the year. Thames also had three assists while once again committing just one turnover. For the tournament, Thames had 16 assists versus a mere three turnovers.
Joining Bairstow, Williams, Polee, and Thames on the 2014 all-tournament team was New Mexico’s Alex Kirk.
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