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San Diego State edges New Mexico for league title

The SportsXchange

SAN DIEGO -- Let's cut to the chase in what led San Diego State to take scissors to the nets: The Aztecs got in a zone and that did in New Mexico.

No. 10 San Diego State is the Mountain West king thanks to a stunning rally that lifted the Aztecs to a 51-48 victory over the No. 21 New Mexico Lobos in Saturday night's showdown for the conference title.

That San Diego State coach Steve Fisher was climbing a ladder after the game to shred nylon did not seem likely when the Lobos led by 16 points with just under 12 minutes remaining.

But the veteran Fisher ditched his man defense, went to a 1-3-1 zone and because of it, the Aztecs head to Thursday's conference tournament as the No. 1 seed.

San Diego State (27-3, 16-2) was led by guard Xavier Thames' 23 points. New Mexico (24-6, 15-3) were paced by forward Cameron Bairstow's 20 points.

The Aztecs, after getting manhandled by the Lobos' big men, switched their defense and turned it into a game after falling behind 41-25. They went on a 19-1 run in 6 1/2 minutes to seize a 44-42 lead when forward Dwayne Polee II scored a layup. It was Polee's defense that had a big part in the comeback as he proved to be the needed spark off the bench.

But it was also Fisher leaning on assistant Justin Hutson, the team's defensive coach.

"Justin Hutson, at the timeout before the timeout, said to me, 'Do you want to try the 1-3-1?'" Fisher said. "And I said, 'If you do. What do you think?' And he knew I was uncertain, and he said, 'No, let's not do it.'

"So after another dunk and a layup and a dunk, I said, 'Timeout. We're going to the 1-3-1.' For some crazy reason, it worked.

"They no longer were able to pull the ball into the low post. I know they were taking off guard, so were our kids. It got us obviously back into the game."

That the Aztecs went to the zone is news. They used it for the first time in a comeback win over Boise State and other are occasions. But most years the team never utilized it.

But the time was right on Saturday.

"We caught them off guard a little bit and that was the plan," Thames said.

While the Aztecs tweaked their look, the Lobos looked bewildered.

"They went zone and we just didn't make the adjustment," New Mexico coach Craig Neal said. "And we couldn't guard Thames."

Thames was a senior star on senior night. His 12 second-half points and tight defense on the perimeter with a game-high five steals were critical.

"Thames got it going and our defense wasn't the same," Neal said.

Bairstow said the Lobos did not handle the pressure well in letting their cushion slip away. Plus, their best outside shooter, Kendall Williams, picked up his fourth foul, which pointed him toward the bench.

"I thought we were in a great position," Bairstow said. "But I was telling the guys we need to keep it on them. I felt like when Kendall came out (at the 8:51 mark) that's when they started the 1-3-1 and they got a couple of baskets off it. That changed it around."

But guard Deshawn Delaney gave the Lobos the lead on a 3-pointer with 4:22 remaining. Thames got the lead back at 46-45 on a driving shot two minutes later.

With 59 seconds to go, New Mexico center Alex Kirk went to the one for two free throws after being fouled by Josh Davis. But Kirk missed both and forward JJ O'Brien sank one of two free throws for a 47-45 San Diego State advantage.

"We just fought harder," said Davis, who had a team-high nine rebounds. "It's a credit to our team and just a great win."

Williams, last year's MW player of the year, got off a quick 3-point shot with 13 seconds left that would have given New Mexico the lead. But he misfired, and it was clear from the body language from the New Mexico bench that was not the shot the coaches were seeking.

"Yeah, but he's made a lot of them," Neal said.

Thames and forward Matt Shrigley made four free throws in the last nine seconds. Williams hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer for the final score, just before the bewildered Lobos headed for the locker room with a rush of Aztecs fans storming the court.

For Fisher, it was his conference-record eighth Mountain West title.

"I'm just so, so excited for San Diego State and this team to accomplish what they did, hang a banner," Fisher said. "It's theirs."

San Diego State, which lost only once to ranked Arizona this year at Viejas, ran its home winning streak to 14.

San Diego State has now won or share the four Mountain West regular-season titles, but none have come in such a dramatic fashion with a comeback that will long be remembered.

Bairstow paced the Lobos in the first half with 13 points. They gained a 26-20 advantage in the opening 20 minutes.

But it was a 6 1/2-minute run that will long be remembered at San Diego State.

NOTES: San Diego State has won 23 games in six straight seasons. ... The Aztecs entered the game with a school-high 15 Mountain West wins after winning but nine conference games last season. ... San Diego State senior G Xavier Thames and F Josh Davis were honored before the game. ... Scouts from eight NBA teams were in attendance. ... Coach Craig Neal notched his 24th win at New Mexico on Wednesday, which tied him with Steve Alford for most by a Lobos coach in his first year. ... Neal, like Alford at UCLA, is among 20 fathers coaching their sons in the Division I. Cullen Neal is a freshman guard.
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