New Mexico finally secures quality win, likely locks Mountain West in as three-bid league

On the surface, entering Wednesday night's crucial clash with 13th-ranked San Diego State, New Mexico looked like a strong candidate for an at-large NCAA tournament bid.

By coming away with a much-needed 77-67 win on the road against No. 13 San Diego State, the Lobos locked the Mountain West in as a three-bid league (… and with Colorado State losing at Boise State two hours after Wyoming fell at home to Air Force on Wednesday, the MWC will likely be just that — a three-bid league.)

More important for the time being, though, is that the Lobos, the preseason pick to win the league, is all alone atop the MWC standings until at least Saturday.

The Lobos currently stand at 21-4 overall and 7-2 in the Mountain West. Behind them by a game now are SDSU and 11th-ranked UNLV, each at 6-3.

The Rebels travel to Albuquerque for a Saturday morning showdown. If New Mexico successfully avenges an 80-63 loss in Las Vegas from back on Jan. 21, it will hold a commanding two-game edge on UNLV. A loss would likely mean the league's top three teams are again locked into a first-place tie.

But no matter where it finishes in the Mountain West race, New Mexico can take solace in the fact that it is finally playing like the team everyone it expected it to be.

Given their underwhelming non-conference schedule, the Lobos had little margin for error before league play. Instead, they dropped a home game to New Mexico State and a neutral site contest to Santa Clara. Combined with a home loss to San Diego State and the lopsided defeat in Vegas, New Mexico headed to Viejas Arena on Wednesday with a shiny 20-4 record without much substance behind it in terms of quality wins.

That is no longer an issue.

To go with an RPI of 32 and the inside track to a regular season league title is a signature win over the Aztecs.

Preseason MWC Player of the Year Drew Gordon posted 17 points and 17 rebounds, while preseason all-Mountain West selection Kendall Williams scored a game-high 21 points off of 5-of-6 3-point shooting.

Hitting five of six treys won't happen every night, but Williams has surged during the Lobos' current six-game winning streak, and keeping his confident, productive play going the rest of the way might determine just how far New Mexico's ride goes.

During the Lobos' current streak, he's shooting 64.6 percent from the floor, 52.9 percent from long range and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.6.

For the better part of the season, Williams, who finished his freshman year on a tear, struggled to fill the shoes of departed senior point guard Dairese Gary, who for four years was an extension of coach Steve Alford on the floor and one of college basketball's elite leaders.

He's playing as confident as he has at any point in his brief college career, and by coming through with a monster performance on Wednesday, he likely secured himself to do so for the first time in the NCAA tournament next month.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for Follow him on Twitter at @ryanmgreene.

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