Las Vegas, NV (SportsNetwork.com) - It is the championship game that everyone wanted to see and most people predicted in the Mountain West Conference, as the eighth-ranked San Diego State Aztecs go up against the 20th-ranked New Mexico Lobos at the Thomas & Mack Center today.
The top-seeded Aztecs are trying to become just the third team to capture both the outright regular season and tournament titles in the MWC. The squad has won six consecutive games and eight of the last nine, thanks to a 73-39 thrashing of Utah State in the quarterfinals of the 15th annual tournament on Thursday, followed by a 59-51 triumph over host UNLV yesterday.
San Diego State has won the most tournament titles in the MWC with four, the most recent of those coming back in 2011 over BYU.
As for the second-seeded Lobos, the two-time defending tournament champs who topped this same SDSU squad two years ago in the finals, 68-59, their run toward a third straight appearance in the championship began with a 93-77 thrashing of Fresno State two nights ago, and continued with a narrow 70-67 victory against a scrappy Boise State bunch.
The Lobos may own a 43-34 advantage in the all-time series after the teams split their two regular-season meetings, but New Mexico is seeking some payback after allowing the Aztecs off the hook in the regular-season finale a week ago. Ahead by as many as 16 points in the second half, UNM appeared destined for the win and the regular-season title in the MWC, but the Lobos fell apart down the stretch and allowed SDSU to come all the way back for the 51-48 final at Viejas Arena.
The Lobos led the entire way against Boise State last night, although New Mexico tried to give the game away by shooting only 34.6 percent from the floor in the second half, including 2-of-8 behind the 3-point line, not to mention a mere 15-of-26 at the free-throw line. For the game, UNM was just 22- of-36 at the charity stripe, but don't blame Cameron Bairstow who connected on 15-of-18 at the line in order to finish with 23 points, to go along with eight rebounds. Kendall Williams and Deshawn Delaney added 16 and 14 points, respectively, while Alex Kirk came up a point shy of a double-double as he tallied 11 rebounds.
This meeting is a perfect opportunity for Bairstow (20.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg) to show why he, and not San Diego State guard Xavier Thames, deserved to be named the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year. It also wouldn't hurt for Williams (16.4 ppg, 160 assists) and Kirk (13.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg) to put forth a better effort this time around as well.
With the crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center fighting against them as well, the Aztecs had to battle more than just the five Runnin' Rebels on the floor at any one time last night. San Diego State shot a dismal 36.4 percent from the floor and just 5-of-14 behind the 3-point line versus UNLV, but the good news is that SDSU was able to make such efforts stand up and lead to an eight-point win in enemy territory. Thames finished with 17 points and six assists, while Dwayne Polee dropped in a game-high 18 points off the bench as the four starting forwards for SDSU combined to shoot only 7-of-24 from the field and post 16 points.
Playing close to 31 minutes per game, it is clear that the Aztecs take their cues from Thames who is not only the assist leader with 102, he is also first in the scoring department with 16.9 ppg, followed by Winston Shepard with another 12.1 ppg. But as most know, SDSU is a defensive team first and foremost, to the point where they've limited opponents to only 38.4 percent shooting from the field and 28.6 percent beyond the arc, en route to just 56.4 ppg.