Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, March 15, 2014 | 8 p.m.
The more the Mountain West tournament changes, the more it stays the same.
In the first season with an 11-team field that necessitated a full round of play-in games Wednesday, Saturday’s final at the Thomas & Mack Center looked very familiar. A few faces have changed, but the outcome remained the same with New Mexico fending off San Diego State 64-58 for its third straight tournament championship.
First-year Lobos coach Craig Neal didn’t wear the net around his neck like predecessor Steve Alford did. But who knows what the two longtime friends will get up to later tonight, as Alford has his own tournament title to celebrate with UCLA’s victory against Arizona down the road at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“It’s funny that two southern Indiana kids are cutting down nets in Vegas,” said Neal, who spent the previous nine years as Alford’s assistant. “… We can talk all we want about what’s done and what we’ve done, but this is my team now, it’s my program now.”
No. 1 seed San Diego State (29-4) nearly pulled off a late comeback after doing the same thing to the Lobos last week. After trailing by five in the final two minutes, the Aztecs briefly took a one-point lead on a terrific and-one putback dunk by Dwayne Polee.
Tournament MVP Cameron Bairstow countered with an and-one finish of his own that put New Mexico up for good, because when No. 2 seed New Mexico (27-6) needed a kill shot, it had the perfect guy to step up and take it.
Facing San Diego State’s 1-3-1 zone, the same thing that gave New Mexico fits last week, the Lobos couldn’t get a good look inside. So senior guard Kendall Williams hoisted up a long 3-pointer near the end of the shot clock that rattled home for the dagger.
“I wasn’t really expecting him to shoot it; I was expecting the ball screen,” Polee said. “But he’s a great player, and he hit a great shot. There wasn’t nothing I could do.”
Williams finished with 16 points on 4-for-9 shooting, and Bairstow registered 17 points and nine rebounds. Those two plus teammate Alex Kirk, who had eight points and 11 rebounds, made the all-tournament team, as did San Diego State’s Polee and Xavier Thames.
Both teams will make the NCAA Tournament. The Aztecs are looking at a seed in the 3-5 range; the Lobos are more in the 5-7 range. No matter where they’re seeded, the goal is to win and help erase some of the stink from the Mountain West’s 2-5 record in last year’s tournament.
That’s what’s coming up, but there was plenty to digest here at the Mack tonight. These two teams have won the past five tournament championships, and there’s no doubt they make up the top rivalry in the league right now.
A week ago, there was some doubt as to which player, UNM’s Bairstow or SDSU’s Thames, should win the league's Player of the Year award. Thanks to the Aztecs’ comeback, it went to Thames as the best player on the league’s top team.
When this scenario played out a couple of years ago — SDSU’s Jamaal Franklin won the award over UNM’s Drew Gordon — Gordon made a point of planting his tournament MVP award on the podium and complaining about not getting the regular-season award. Given the same opportunity, Bairstow opted for a different approach when asked whether he came out trying to show he deserved that award.
“It wasn’t about proving a point,” Bairstow said. “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.”
Kirk was one of the guys reportedly campaigning for Neal to get the job when Alford decided to leave for UCLA. A year later, the Lobos are in a familiar position, on top of a ladder in an arena their fans have taken over. Neal sticking around was a big piece of bridging that gap from when a certain Lobo would wear the net to the team cutting it down once more.
“We were kind of able to keep as much of a family as we could here,” Kirk said. “It just made the three-peat that much more special.”