The New Mexico Lobos got some sweet revenge and made history at the same time Saturday afternoon at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The 20th-ranked Lobos, who blew a 16-point lead in the final 12 minutes of a 51-48 Mountain West Conference regular-season title deciding loss at San Diego State on March 8, got payback with a 64-58 victory over the eighth-ranked Aztecs in the Mountain West tournament championship game.
Senior forward Cameron Bairstow scored a game-high 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds while garnering tournament MVP honors and guard Kendall Williams added 16 points, including a game-clinching 3-pointer with 26 seconds to go, as New Mexico became the first team in Mountain West history to win three consecutive tournament championships. It also earned the Lobos the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
It wasn’t easy.
The Lobos (27-6) appeared to have the game comfortably in hand when Bairstow sank a free throw to give New Mexico a 56-49 lead with 2:34 left. But San Diego State (29-4), which forced 15 turnovers, rallied to take a 57-56 lead on a three-point play by forward Dwayne Polee II after a steal by forward Winston Shepard.
But Bairstow answered with a fast-break three-point play of his own a few seconds later to put the Lobos back in front for good, 59-57. After Polee, who help send UNLV packing with 18 points in a 59-51 semifinal win over the Rebels, missed on a drive, Williams delivered the dagger with a long 3-pointer from top of the key that just beat the shot clock.
San Diego State point guard Xavier Thames, who scored a team-high 15 points, then air-balled a off-balanced 3-pointer and Bairstow then sealed the win with two free throws after getting fouled on the rebound.
“I think it’s hard to beat any great team three times,” the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Bairstow, who averaged 20.3 points and 9.0 rebounds in three tournament games, said. “That’s what they are, a great team. We know we let one slip in San Diego. At the same time we understood that we did have them right where we wanted them. We just had to show up with that same mindset that we would beat them. Fortunately we were able to close it out at the end.”
Shepard, who had 13 points, seven rebounds and three steals, finished the scoring with a free throw with 7.7 seconds remaining.
“We just didn’t knock down shots,” Thames, who was named Mountain West Player of the Year earlier in the week, said.
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher is hopeful the Aztecs will still receive a top four seed in a regional when the NCAA Tournament pairings are released on Sunday.
“We competed from wire to wire, and we just didn’t quite have enough to finish,” Fisher said. “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.”
Guard Hugh Greenwood finished with 12 points and five assists and center Alex Kirk added eight points and a game-high 11 rebounds for the Lobos.
New Mexico improved to 4-1 in Mountain West championship games. The Lobos also broke the Mountain West tournament record for consecutive wins with nine, topping the previous mark of eight set by San Diego State from 2010-12.
Kirk, Williams, Polee, who finished with 14 points in the final, and Thames joined MVP Bairstow on the all-tournament team.