San Diego, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - The biggest game of the year in the Mountain West Conference comes on the final day of the regular season, as the 10th-ranked San Diego State Aztecs and 21st-ranked New Mexico Lobos duke it out for the title tonight at Viejas Arena.
Both teams are sporting conference records of 15-2 and regardless of the outcome tonight, either UNM or SDSU will have taken the crown for the fifth straight year. The Aztecs, who earlier this season were enjoying a huge 20- game win streak and climbed as high as No. 5 in the AP rankings, fought hard against UNLV on Wednesday night and came up with a 73-64 victory at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Not only has San Diego State reached the 20-win plateau for the ninth straight season, the squad also owns a school-record 15 victories in conference play as well thanks to a third win in a row and the fifth in six outings. Additionally, the Aztecs have also won 13 straight home dates stretching back to Nov. 14 when they fell to No. 6 Arizona (69-60).
As for the Lobos, they've been playing catch-up all along in 2013-14 and are finally on equal footing with SDSU. The team has dropped just two decisions since the week leading up to Christmas, one each to UNLV and Boise State. Since the setback to the Broncos, a one-point decision on Feb. 12, UNM has rattled off sixth straight wins under first-year head coach Craig Neal. The latest triumph was an 80-52 thrashing of Air Force at home on Wednesday night.
New Mexico won the first meeting of the season last month at home by a score of 58-44, easily marking the weakest offensive effort of the season by the Aztecs. With the decision, UNM also moved further ahead in the all-time series by a count of 43-33.
Last season, when UNM stopped into Viejas Arena, the Lobos were crushed in a 55-34 decision, the worst loss of 2012-13 for New Mexico by far.
New Mexico shot only 36.7 percent from the floor in the first half against the Falcons earlier this week, but still held a 14-point lead at the break after holding the visitors to just eight field goals through the first 20 minutes. Cameron Bairstow took charge in the paint with his 21 points and seven rebounds, while reserve Deshawn Delaney checked in with eight points and a game-high nine boards. Kendall Williams added 13 points and both Cleveland Thomas and Alex Kirk 10 points in the romp.
In conference play, Bairstow is credited with producing 20.5 ppg as he shoots 56.8 percent from the floor. The star forward, who figures to be in the running for MWC Player of the Year honors with San Diego State guard Xavier Thames, also clears 7.2 rpg which is second only to Kirk (12.5 ppg) who is pulling down 7.9 rpg. Between the duo they've accounted for 72 of the program's 81 blocked shots in league play, which alone is more than the competition (44).
The Aztecs may have thought they caught a break against UNLV a few nights back with the Runnin' Rebels when the leading rebounder for UNLV sat out due to a concussion, but SDSU was put to the test before securing the nine-point win. Thames posted a team-best 19 points, adding six rebounds and six assists, although he did shoot only 6-of-18 from the floor for the visitors. Matt Shrigley pitched in with 14 points off the bench and Dwayne Polee 13 in a reserve role as well. Winston Shepard chipped in 13 points of his own.
While the game with UNLV was not played in southern California, it should be noted that San Diego State is nearly unbeatable at home these days. The team is spreading the wealth on offense with 74.1 ppg, as only Thames and Shepard are scoring in double figures with 14.5 and 13.6 ppg, respectively. On the glass, Josh Davis takes control with 10.2 rpg to help give the group a rebounding edge of more than four per contest. More importantly, the defense is limiting foes to just 33.7 percent shooting from the field and 24.1 percent out on the perimeter, en route to a mere 52.1 ppg.