UNLV-New Mexico Preview

The Associated Press

New Mexico has advanced to consecutive Mountain West tournament title games for the first time.

The defending champion still has work to do.

With a automatic berth in the NCAA tournament at stake, the 15th-ranked Lobos face UNLV on Saturday in Las Vegas.

This will be the second consecutive season these teams meet in the MWC tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center. New Mexico won 72-67 in last year's semifinals, ending a seven-game tournament losing streak to UNLV and dropping the Runnin' Rebels to 17-1 on their home floor.

The Lobos went on to defeat San Diego State, the two-time defending champs, 68-59 for their first MWC conference tournament title since 2005.

Top-seeded New Mexico (28-5) is trying to repeat after eliminating the Aztecs 60-50 on Friday.

The Lobos have struggled on the offensive end in two tournament games, shooting 40.9 percent, but they've limited their opponents to 48.0 points per game on 31.6 percent shooting.

"It's difficult to find a lot of flaws in what these guys have done," Steve Alford, the MWC coach of the year, told the team's official website. "To be at 28 wins playing the schedule we have played, I can't tell you how proud I am of these guys. They just keep performing at a high level."

Alex Kirk, a 7-foot redshirt sophomore, and 6-9 forward Cameron Bairstow have come up big for the Lobos, combining for 52 points and 31 rebounds.

"We are kind of coming together a little bit more," said Kirk, a second-team all-MWC pick, who blocked four shots on Friday.

Alford went as far as to say that Kirk is the "best defender in the league."

That honor was actually given to UNLV forward Khem Birch.

Kirk has been the Lobos' best player against the Rebels (25-8) this season. He had 23 points and nine rebounds in a 65-60 victory at The Pit on Jan. 9, then finished with 17 points and career-high 16 boards in a 64-55 loss in Las Vegas exactly one month later.

That win was a turning point for UNLV, which avoided a season-high third straight loss in that game behind 17 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks from MWC freshman of the year Anthony Bennett.

The Runnin' Rebels' won seven of their final nine MWC games to climb from fifth to third, three games back of New Mexico.

UNLV has carried that momentum into the conference tournament, and it's now in the title game for the first time since 2010 after defeating Air Force and Colorado State.

The Runnin' Rebels, who last won the event in 2008, are glad they'll be playing on their home floor. However, coach Dave Rice also understands his team is facing an opponent which knows its tendencies. This will be the sixth matchup between these teams over the last two seasons.

"We know what they do, they know what we do," Rice said after Friday's 75-65 victory. "It's a matter of executing. Again, it's those two words, I'm sure Coach Alford will tell his kids the same thing, it's tough and together. If we stay tough and together, we got a chance, but we know how good they are."

Bennett has scored a team-high 42 points in the tournament.

New Mexico's last two opponents have missed 33 of 44 from long range, but Hugh Greenwood, Kendall Williams and Tony Snell will have to keep an eye on freshman Katin Reinhardt, who hit four 3-pointers and scored a season-best 21 points in the semifinals.

Reinhardt had four 3s and 16 points on Feb. 9.

Williams, the MWC player of the year, scored five points on 1-of-9 shooting in last month's loss. He's totaled just 13 points in the tournament, but he also has 10 assists and nine rebounds.