My first choice for this week's Game of the Week was the AAC battle between Louisville and Cincinnati. Sadly, that game was preempted in my area so that CBS could show Florida-Ole Miss to all of my friends who love the SEC. The Cardinals win turned out to be one of the better games of the day (based on the highlights), but I wasn't too unhappy to take the biggest and best that the Mountain West has to offer us this year. I think the Aztecs' win at Kansas is the most impressive road win of the season, but I wondered if they could pull another win against New Mexico, which came into Saturday just one game behind San Diego State in the Mountain West standings. According to Joe Lunardi, the Lobos and Aztecs are the only two teams from the conference that are currently in the NCAA tournament field.
From my previous viewing of coach Steve Fisher's team, I knew they were a scrappy defensive team that sometimes struggled on offense. Senior guard Xavier Thames had been struggling from the field, so the team had been struggling right along with him. They generally defend well enough to win low-scoring games, but had lost at Wyoming on Feb. 11 when Thames went 3-of-16 from the field and finished with 13 points. I had not watched New Mexico this season, but I knew they had a nice inside-outside combination of center Alex Kirk and guard Kendall Williams. It was the third member of their high-scoring trio that I had not counted on.
Early in the game, two things were apparent: the Lobos had a tremendous size advantage and they were getting much higher quality shots. Kirk at 7-0, 250 lbs was a problem for the smaller Aztecs, but the biggest difference was senior forward Cameron Bairstow, this year's Brock Motum. The 6-9, 250 lb Australian has been on the New Mexico roster for four years, but has only become a full-time starter as a senior. He averaged 9.7 points in 2012-13, but has bumped his average to 20.5 points on 56.2 percent from the field as a senior. Bairstow was able to use his width in the paint, but was also deadly on mid-range jumpers. He finished the game with 26 points on 11-of-18 from the field to go with nine boards.
The Lobos had as much as an 11-point lead in the first half and pushed the lead up to 23 points halfway through the second half. Their defense was very opportunistic and it appeared that every time they gambled on the passing lanes, they came up with a steal, even though they recorded just five in the game (and the Aztecs only had nine turnovers). Credit the New Mexico defense for not allowing any easy shots, but there may be a slight worry for Aztec fans in that their team forced so many difficult shots. San Diego State made just 31 percent of their field goals in the first half. Rather than improving to the mean in the second half, they finished the game at just 32.3 percent and were a mere 2-of-10 from downtown.
If there is a silver lining for the Aztecs, it is that they fought back. They continued to crash the offensive boards and shaved the lead to 12 points with two minutes remaining. In the last 10 minutes of the game, the Aztecs outscored their opponent 15-6. They did not give up, despite facing nearly insurmountable odds. I like that and I will continue to push the Aztecs as a Final Four team. It will be very interesting to see how the two match up when they play in San Diego on March 8.