A rematch between the two teams that competed in the championship game of the Mountain West Conference Tournament last season gets underway on Friday, as the 15th-ranked New Mexico Lobos contend with the San Diego State Aztecs at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The top seed in this year's tourney, New Mexico won the title last year by a score of 68-59, the team's second overall in the league. On Wednesday, the Lobos took their first step towards a repeat championship as they took out eighth-seeded Wyoming, 59-46, an effort that also evened the all-time record of UNM in the tournament to 11-11.
As for the fourth-seeded Aztecs, they ran their record in this tourney to 19-9 thanks to a 73-67 win over fifth-seeded Boise State two nights ago. San Diego State, which has taken part in four straight title games in the event, has won it all a total of four times, most recently claiming back-to-back crowns in 2010 and 2011.
The teams split the two regular-season meetings this year, with each winning at home. The first contest was a huge defensive effort by SDSU as it held the Lobos to a paltry 34 points back in late January then a month later a 14th- ranked UNM returned the favor in The Pit, 70-60. New Mexico now owns a 41-33 advantage in the all-time series.
The winner of this meeting will head to the title game, with an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament on the line, facing the survivor of the UNLV/Colorado State clash.
The defense stood firm against Boise State as the Aztecs held the Broncos to only 34.9 percent shooting from the floor and 6-of-19 behind the 3-point line, yet SDSU still only won by six points. Jamaal Franklin led the way with 19 points and eight rebounds, converting 9-of-10 at the free-throw line, followed by Xavier Thames who had an identical effort at the charity stripe as he came up with 18 points, to go with six boards and five assists. Chase Tapley chipped in 17 points, six boards and four steals as the backcourt dominated for the Aztecs.
Franklin has been an absolute beast for the Aztecs again this season, so much so that he leads the program in scoring (17.0 ppg), rebounding (9.4 rpg), assists (95) and steals (46) which means he is a one-of-a-kind in college basketball these days. Tapley checks in with 13.6 ppg, having made good on a team-best 64 3-pointers through 31 games.
In both of the regular-season meetings between UNM and the Cowboys the scoring was kept to a minimum and that was the case yet again on Wednesday as Wyoming came up with just 46 points on 32.0 percent shooting from the floor. From an offensive standpoint, Tony Snell led the way for the Lobos with 15 points, although he shot just 4-of-11 from the floor along the way. Cameron Bairstow responded with 14 points and eight rebounds as the squad survived 40.5 percent shooting from the floor by outscoring the Pokes, 21-8 at the free-throw line.
While he didn't show up as a top scorer in the first round of tournament action, Kendall Williams is still a crucial piece of the puzzle for the Lobos with his 13.7 ppg and 153 assists through 31 appearances. Snell (12.2 ppg) and Alex Kirk (12.0 ppg) are strong contributors, the latter clearing better than eight rebounds per outing and stepping up with 56 of the unit's 126 blocked shots as well.