Ticket Punched: Determined and deep, New Mexico is back on the national radar

LAS VEGAS — After about the game's first five minutes, it became pretty clear that New Mexico was playing for something bigger than a Mountain West Conference tournament title.

On the game's first possession, sophomore sniper Tony Snell curled off of a screen on the right wing and cashed a contested, fading jumper. Then he hit a 3-pointer. Then Drew Gordon completed an old-fashioned 3-point play. The Lobos were up 8-1 early, dominating on the glass and winning just about every hustle point available.

They were fresher, deeper and, above all, hungrier. Thus, the 68-59 triumph over San Diego State on Saturday afternoon at the Thomas & Mack Center.

For years, Lobos coach Steve Alford has been one of the league's more vocal coaches when it came to the supposed advantage MWC power UNLV has of holding the conference tournament in its home gym.

But Alford left Las Vegas this weekend with a 27-6 record, a share of the MWC regular season title, his first conference tournament title and his second NCAA tournament berth in three years. In other words, he had nothing to be upset about.

"To come here and play the way we did for three days is a remarkable feat for our young men," he said afterwards. "I couldn't be prouder of a group of guys. I've said it all year long, I think they've gone under appreciated."

There was a reason for that.

After being picked as the preseason favorite in a stronger than expected Mountain West, unspectacular early season losses to New Mexico State and Santa Clara, then a 1-2 start in conference play, kept them from getting much love in the national polls. Then, after they won seven straight, capped by back-to-back victories over San Diego State and UNLV in late February, they finally cracked the Top 25 rankings.

Then, they lost back-to-back road games at Colorado State and TCU, thus squandering a two-game lead in the conference standings.

And now they're officially back on the radar just in time for the big stage.

They started their weekend by smashing an overwhelmed Air Force squad, then outlasted UNLV on Friday night in an epic, hard-fought semifinal. To end it, they had enough left in the tank to dominate San Diego State.

New Mexico led the Aztecs from start to finish, and everyone contributed, as Alford flexed every piece of his 10-man rotation.

At the center of it all was senior forward Drew Gordon, who all week had been vocal over what he perceived to be a snub that awarded the league's Player of the Year honors to San Diego State's deserving sophomore wing Jamaal Franklin instead of him.

He had 12 points and 12 rebounds in what was his third strong performance of the weekend. It wasn't just Gordon clearly playing with a chip on his shoulder over what he and his coach considered to be a snub, but the entire team appeared to be just as locked in.

"Well, I won one out of two, so it's not bad," Gordon said of his tournament MVP honors, which involved a trophy that he even toted with him to the postgame press conference and placed on the table in front of him. "I've been saying this whole time that we need to end up on top, to be able to look back and kind of laugh at some of the honors that weren't awarded to our team, especially on the defensive end, some of the (sixth) men. I know our bench has been huge this whole season and especially in the tournament."

New Mexico, despite being one of the Mountain West's toughest defensive clubs, was shut out when it came to the five-member all-defensive team named by the league earlier in the week.

As for the Sixth Man of the Year award, none of the Lobos' reserves were consistent enough to realistically win it, but on Saturday, they each showed just how valuable they can be.

Leading the way were a pair of wings in Demetrius Walker and Phillip McDonald.

Walker, a one-time highly-touted recruit who transferred in from Arizona State, emerged late in the season as more than just an off-the-charts athlete, displaying tremendous activity on the glass, an improved jump-shot and smooth touch from the free throw line at the league tournament.

McDonald, a senior whose role diminished some late with Walker's emergence, stood out with eight points, two huge 3-pointers and several key hustle plays against the Aztecs.

Year in and year out, the Mountain West Conference title game has taken on a sluggish pace, and rarely been a thing of beauty.

But on Saturday, New Mexico put forth a better product than anyone had in the Saturday showcase game in years, and it could be a sign of good things to come in the NCAA tournament.

Granted, they won't have to use their depth to combat a three-games-in-three-days situation again this year, but if any of Alford's regulars struggle in an NCAA tournament game, he has a wealth of options to try out on his bench.

They have quality big men. They have reliable, versatile point guards. They have exceptional outside shooters. They have athletes. And they have multiples of each.

And if as many of them are clicking as were on Saturday, the Lobos can overwhelm just about anyone in the tournament's first weekend with their numbers and, thus, become a real contender to get to the second.

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

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