Let’s just all agree on this right now: that San Diego State win back in January—the one where New Mexico scored just 34 points in a full 40 minutes of basketball—that was an anomaly.
The last two meetings—including the Lobos’ 60-50 drubbing of the Aztecs in the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament Friday night—that’s actually more of the norm.
And there’s only one real explanation as to why New Mexico (28-5) has dominated SDSU in its last two meetings—its big men are real good.
Power forward Cameron Bairstow had 16 points and 11 rebounds while center Alex Kirk added 15 points, nine rebounds and four blocks as the Lobos bruised, battered and bullied San Diego State all game.
The Aztecs (22-10) will now leave Las Vegas without going to the championship game for the first time in five seasons. And New Mexico? It has a chance to win its second consecutive Mountain West tournament championship and—if all goes well for the Lobos—play for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“We kind of talked about just kind of going at 'em. I'm not going to say they're undersized, but they're definitely smaller than us in height and weight,” Kirk said at the postgame press conference. “It was kind of an emphasis to go at them. It opened up a lot of things. Cam attacked right away, rebounded right away, we kind of got rolling the rest of the way.”
It wasn’t just that Bairstow and Kirk beat SDSU down low—where the combination of Deshawn Stephens, J.J O’Brien, Skylar Spencer, Jamaal Franklin and a cameo from James Johnson could not stop them—but that they were a huge presence on the defensive end as well.
O’Brien, who usually plays the four spot for the Aztecs, was shut out, going 0-for-6 from the field with zero points.
Stephens had just four points and just five rebounds.
And Franklin—last year’s Mountain West Player of the Year—was limited to just eight points. The junior, who can score in multiple ways but mostly by slashing to the basket, scored just three points in the second half on 1-of-7 shooting.
SDSU was also held at bay on the free throw line, attempting just eight free throws to New Mexico’s 16.
Guards Xavier Thames and Chase Tapley were the only San Diego State players to get into double figures scoring (both scored 14 points), but on horrendous shooting. Thames went a respectable 5-for-10, but was 0-for-3 from beyond the arc. Tapley had a more difficult game, going 6-for-16.
“Their bigs did give us trouble at our end,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. “In situations against a lot of teams, we would get to the rim with a chance for baskets and/or fouls. And today they made it hard. They made it hard for us to get shots on the rim with their length, with their size, with their aggressiveness. We tried to spread the floor, but they do a good job of, when there is dribble penetration, of sinking, filling, making it hard for you to turn what maybe looks like a shot at the rim to a really, really difficult shot at the rim.”
While the final score may be close, New Mexico blew the game wide open with just three minutes past in the second half.
The Lobos went on a 24-4 run that spanned over the halftime break to open a 43-22 lead and make the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV sound like it was The Pit.
Critical in that run was junior guard Tony Snell, who hit three consecutive three pointers to bury the Aztecs in a deficit that they would not get out of. Snell finished with a game-high 17 points and was 5-for-8 on attempts from beyond the arc.
New Mexico went into halftime on a 10-2 run to go up 29-20. Then they came out with a 14-2 run to put the game away for good with 16 minutes left to play.
“We got on a roll there to start the second half, which we've been concentrating on,” Lobos coach Steve Alford said. “We've been outstanding in the last five minutes. But we haven't been good coming out of locker rooms. We challenged our guys at halftimes. That's the best we played coming out of half on that 14-2 run.”
Hurting San Diego State’s chances in those runs was horrid shooting. The Aztecs finished the first half going 1-for-8 from the field in the final six minutes, with the only field goal coming on a Stephens tip in.
SDSU then came out and went 1-for-6 from the field and faced a 21-point deficit.
New Mexico is the team that is usually known for its long scoring droughts, but in a span that took about 10 minutes of game time off the clock, it was San Diego State that couldn’t find any points.
“We kind of picked up our intensity,” Kirk said, “just kept going at 'em. We got big stops. We got defensive stops and we rebounded.”
If there’s any solace for the Aztecs, it’s that everyone knows that their name will be called on Selection Sunday. SDSU is no longer on the bubble, not after finishing fourth and getting to the semifinals of the No. 2 rated conference in the country.
But San Diego State also knows that success in the NCAA Tournament will come down to matchups.
If the Aztecs play a team like New Mexico in the Big Dance—one that has great interior presence to go along with timely outside shooting—it will spell trouble.
“I think New Mexico, in particular, maybe (UNLV), Colorado State have the size that it won't matter who they play,” Fisher said. “I think we're better served when we play perimeter driven teams.”
And that shouldn’t come to a surprise to anyone on Montezuma Mesa. If so, just tell them to put on the tape from the last two times SDSU played New Mexico.