LAS VEGAS --- Hugh Greenwood had just finished explaining why New Mexico had been hoping to get a third crack at San Diego State all week when his coach interjected.
“Hugh that was really good,” Craig Neal told his junior guard. “You’ve just got to be careful about being real honest about things.”
Yes, now that New Mexico has defeated Boise State 73-70 in the Mountain West semifinals, it’s OK for the Lobos to admit the obvious. As much as they tried to keep their focus on Fresno State and Boise State this week, they’re thrilled to get the chance to redeem themselves for blowing a 16-point lead with 11 minutes to go last Saturday at Viejas Arena with the regular season league title at stake.
“It’s been in the back of our minds since that game,” Greenwood said. “We’ve always taken it one step at a time, one game at a time. We took care of Fresno, took care of Boise. Now we want a rematch. The city of Albuquerque wants a rematch. We’re definitely looking forward to the challenge.”
Though New Mexico and San Diego State split their two matchups this season, the Lobos have dominated 70 of the 80 minutes. They won convincingly in Albuquerque and punished San Diego State in the paint with Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk for 30 minutes until a tactical move by Steve Fisher shifted momentum in favor of the Aztecs.
A staunch man-to-man coach, Fisher went to the 1-3-1 zone out of desperation in hopes that it might slow down the Lobos. The result was a game-changing 26-4 San Diego State run, a brutal enough stretch that New Mexico spent extra time in advance of the Mountain West tournament working on running its offense against that zone.
“We made the adjustment and we’re looking forward to it,” Greenwood said. “We’ve worked on it throughout the season in bits and pieces. We put a little more of an emphasis on it this week knowing we might get a shot at San Diego State again.”
For New Mexico to beat San Diego State in Saturday’s rubber match, it will have to outplay a defensive-oriented team that won’t beat itself.
The formula for success for San Diego State remains smothering defense, transition offense and second-chance points, but a huge key for the Aztecs is that other scoring options have gradually begun to emerge aside from a steady dose of Xavier Thames attacking off ball screens.
Sometimes that has been ultra-talented but erratic Winston Shepard. Sometimes that has been offensive-rebounding machine Josh Davis. Lately it has been once-forgotten wing Dwayne Polee.
Sparingly used in his first season after transferring from St. John's, Polee appeared headed for a bit role again this season when he never got off the bench in a narrow mid-November loss to Arizona and played only six minutes in an early January victory at Kansas. Instead the former Los Angeles City player of the year has gradually gained Steve Fisher's trust and emerged as sixth man that provides energy, length and athleticism and much-needed outside shooting.
Polee's biggest moment of the season came Feb. 5 when he capped an incredible San Diego State second-half rally with a game-winning 3-pointer off a feed from Thames. The 6-foot-7 junior has scored 12 or more points in five of his last 10 games and had a team-high 18 in the Aztecs' 59-51 victory over host UNLV in the Mountain West semifinals on Friday night.
“I just tried to stay with it knowing my time is going to come,” Polee said. “I just kept working on my game every day and not letting that really get me down. I kept working in the offense and working with the coaches. Now I’ve become a pretty big contributor on this team.”
New Mexico will have to play a far better game Saturday than it did Friday when it shot 34.6 percent in the second half, missed 14 free throws and never managed to deliver a knockout blow. A desperate Boise State team playing to redeem itself after a disappointing regular season actually tied the game on a 3-pointer late in the second half and had two possessions down three with a chance to tie in the final 20 seconds.
The Lobos also benefited from a key call midway through the second half when Thomas Bropleh was assessed a flagrant 2 foul and ejected after clobbering Cameron Bairstow at the rim hard enough to leave the Aussie forward with a bloody nose. Bropleh was Boise State's leading scorer at the time and finished with 16 points.
“The kid made a play on the ball,” Neal said. He’s playing hard and competing at a high level. I just think he got caught with the rule. The rule is anything around the head is a flagrant two. I think he made a good play on the ball and ended up getting Cam’s head.”
The flap about the flagrant foul will all be forgotten in Albuquerque by 3 p.m. Saturday. The focus will solely be on redemption against San Diego State.
“I think they’ll be excited to get another shot,” Neal said. “They won at home. We won at home. Hopefully it will feel like a home game for us tomorrow.”