Top-seeded New Mexico knew its quest for a Mountain West Conference tournament title wouldn’t be easy.
After surviving their opener, the eighth-ranked Lobos could be in for a bigger challenge while trying for a 16th consecutive victory in Friday night’s semifinal against San Diego State in Las Vegas.
Coming off its first outright conference championship since 1994, New Mexico (29-3) had to work for a 75-69 win over ninth-seeded Air Force in Thursday’s quarterfinal round. The Falcons shot 54.0 percent - the second-best effort by a Lobos’ opponent this season - and never allowed New Mexico to pull away.
“The first game is always a hard game,” said point guard Dairese Gary, who scored 20 points in the win and made 14 of his 15 free-throw attempts despite injuring his knee early in the game.
The victory snapped the Lobos’ four-game MWC tournament losing streak and improved their record to 12-0 this season in contests decided by six or fewer points. New Mexico also set a school for wins in a season and is two victories shy of matching the program’s longest winning streak set in 1967-68.
“This team, they’re very poised. They just believe they’re going to win, whether it’s a tight game or a runaway,” said coach Steve Alford, whose team shot 46.8 percent, but 6 for 21 from 3-point range . “They just believe in themselves. Coaches believe in them. There’s a lot of trust there.”
That trust factor could be needed again against fourth-seeded San Diego State (23-8), who edged Colorado State 72-71 on Thursday. While winning the event would likely earn a third seed in the NCAA tournament for New Mexico, the Aztecs are on the bubble and likely need a good showing in Las Vegas to secure a spot in the field of 65.
San Diego State, in the semifinals for the third straight year, was one of two conference teams to beat New Mexico, winning 74-64 at home on Jan 5. The Lobos held on for an 88-86 overtime home win over the Aztecs on Feb. 6.
“This is a game that we’ve been asking for, been looking forward to,” said Aztecs guard D.J. Gay, who had 25 points at New Mexico in February and sank two free throws with 23 seconds to help beat Colorado State. “You know, we’re 1-1 right now. This game is a tiebreaker on a neutral ground. Our team is excited to play them.”
In order to pull off the upset, San Diego State will likely need to contain MWC player of the year Darington Hobson. The 6-foot-7 junior had 29 points with 12 rebounds and sank a pair of free throws with 2.7 second remaining versus the Aztecs last month. He finished with 28, 15 boards and three steals Thursday.
Hobson is averaging 19.2 points and 11.8 rebounds in his last nine games.
“Man, he’s an excellent player,” Air Force guard Evan Washington said. “He can knock down the outside shot if you lay off him. He can drive left to his strong hand - or right. It’s a tough task to take on when you have to defend him 1-on-1.”
Malcolm Thomas, Chase Tapley and Billy White each had 15 points Thursday for the Aztecs, who shot 52.9 percent overall, but went 1 for 10 from 3-point range.
San Diego State, which has won three in a row and seven of eight, is a two-time MWC tournament champion with the last coming in 2006. New Mexico won the title a year earlier.