- Associated Press - Friday, March 7, 2014

SAN DIEGO (AP) - Xavier Thames and the 10th-ranked San Diego State Aztecs will have home court advantage in raucous Viejas Arena.

The No. 21 New Mexico Lobos will have the Cameron Bairstow advantage.

On Saturday night, the Aztecs (26-3, 15-2) and Lobos (24-5, 15-2) meet for the outright Mountain West Conference title, two weeks after Bairstow scored 26 points in the Lobos’ 14-point victory against the Aztecs in Albuquerque.

SDSU coach Steve Fisher said he originally wondered why the teams played twice in two weeks.

Now he’s cool with it.

“It’s fitting that the two best teams are playing where one will win the conference championship,” Fisher said Friday. “That’s what we’ve got, the two best teams in league over an 18-game schedule, which is as taxing as it can be, in all sorts of environments, home and away, and all sorts of things that factor into a long season, that are both playing to win the conference championship.”

These teams have dominated the league the last four seasons. New Mexico won regular-season titles in 2010 and last season, while SDSU shared titles in 2011 and 2012, first with BYU and then the Lobos.

New Mexico won the conference tournament each of the last two years, eliminating the Aztecs both years, including in the title game two seasons ago. SDSU won the tournament in 2010 and 2011.

“The incentive and motivation is we want to win a conference championship. We want to hang a banner. This game is a game we have to win in order to do that,” Fisher said.

Saturday night’s winner gets the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney next week in Las Vegas.

The game also could help decide whether Thames, a senior point guard, or Bairstow, a senior big man from Australia, wins the league’s player of the year award.

It’s a given that Viejas Arena, where the Aztecs are 14-1 this season - the only loss coming against Arizona - will be rocking.

Still, the Aztecs have to play much better than they did in losing at The Pit two weeks ago.

The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Bairstow dominated that game. He leads the MWC at 20.3 points a game.

The Lobos also have another big man to worry about, 7-foot, 250-pound center Alex Kirk, who averages 13.8 points, and guard Kendall Williams, last season’s player of the year who is tied for fifth with Thames at 16.7 points.

Bairstow’s a great player. We’ve just got to limit his touches and things like that,” Thames said. “I know our crowd is going to be great tomorrow. It’s going to be sold out, it’s going to be loud, so it’s going to be good.

“The last game we didn’t get back in transition really well,” said Thames, who along with forward Josh Davis will be honored on Senior Night. “We’ve got to rebound as well. We have to guard better. We didn’t play a good defensive game.”

Fisher thinks Bairstow is the most improved player in the country.

Bairstow scored his 26 points in the first game against SDSU on a series of jumpers, dunks and layups. He scored 10 points during a 21-2 run in the second half that gave New Mexico a 50-26 lead.

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t allow the ball to come in at ease to the low post,” Fisher said. “They got maybe a few more touches in there, right in the sweet spot, two feet in the paint, than normal, but they’re big and they’re good and they throw the ball inside. We have to say, ‘How do we make it harder for them to throw it in?’ But maybe the most important thing is we can’t give them easy baskets. They got way too many run-outs on us in the first game, way too many baskets on live-ball turnovers, where we would turn it over and nobody can stop you and all of a sudden they’re laying it in on the other end off of a turnover. We can’t let that happen.

“We’ve got to find a way to dig in and stay with it.”

Regardless of who wins, it will no doubt be a memorable game.

Fisher said revenge is the last thing on the Aztecs’ minds.

“We know we got throttled at their building,” he said. “We’ve got so many reasons why we will be ready to play tomorrow and the No. 1 is we’re playing for the outright conference championship against another team doing the same thing. Two really good teams playing one another. We’ve had great games with New Mexico over the years, we’ve had some crazy games. Nobody thought we’d get beaten as badly as we did this year when we played them. Nobody thought they would score 34 points when they came here last year and played. Some crazy things happen in this game.”

The Aztecs beat the Lobos 55-34 in San Diego last season, New Mexico’s worst loss in the shot-clock era.


Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/berniewilson

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