Lobos cruise past Colorado State and into Mountain West title game

Mar. 16—LAS VEGAS, Nev. — They aren't done yet.

Behind a third-consecutive defensive gem and another high-energy performance from Jaelen House, the No. 6 seed New Mexico Lobos played their way back in the Mountain West Tournament championship game with a wire-to-wire 74-61 semifinal win over No. 7 Colorado State.

House had 19 points, eight assists, zero turnovers, five rebounds and two steals and freshman J.T. Toppin added 16 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in front of another Lobo fan-heavy arena with an announced semifinal round (both games) attendance of 13,213 in the Thomas & Mack Center on Friday night.

"I've loved how we have turned into a terrific defensive team this tournament," UNM coach Richard Pitino said. "It's gotten better and better every single game. Colorado State is a team that doesn't turn the ball over a lot and shoots a high percentage. We were able to (force them to struggle) with both.

"Just an awesome win. Proud of our guys, and we get a chance to go against a great team (Saturday) to play for a championship."

In the 25th Anniversary season of the Mountain West, the two most decorated men's basketball teams — the Lobos and San Diego State Aztecs — will fittingly square off. The Lobos (25-9), who have four tourney titles, will be playing in their seventh championship game, but just second in the past decade. No. 5 seed San Diego State (24-9) beat No. 1 Utah State in the early semifinal to advance to its seventh-consecutive tournament title game and 16th overall.

"Well, obviously we have a high, high level of respect for their program," Pitino said of SDSU. "The level of consistency that they have built over 30 years. Obviously from Coach (Steve) Fisher to Coach Dutch (Brian Dutcher) and the staff. They just do a great job of being true to what they are ... "

"We've talked about toughness. Boise (State on Thursday) was certainly that, Colorado State (on Friday). It's going to be ramped up even more (vs. SDSU). You're playing on Saturday for a championship, so I think both teams are going to compete their butts off."

That's what the Lobos have been doing already for three consecutive days, and three straight dominant tournament wins as they make a run at becoming the first team in league history to win four games in four days for the title.

Friday night, UNM scored 22 points off 14 turnovers, blocked nine shots and held CSU to 34.3% shooting.

In three Mountain West Tournament games this week, the Lobos have:

—trailed for 41 seconds out of a possible 120 minutes (led 115:31 and tied the rest)

—scored 38 points off turnovers

—stolen the ball 25 times

—blocked 20 shots

—held three opponents (No. 11 Air Force, No. 3 Boise State, No. 7 CSU) to a combined 64-of-188 shooting (34.02%)

"I think what happens (against UNM's high-pressure defense) is you get, not just sped up physically, but you get sped up mentally," said CSU head coach Niko Medved. "I think some of the guys maybe just kind of got out of character a little bit and maybe trying to do a little bit too much in some of those situations."

UNM jumped on the Rams early, flying out to an 11-0 run before CSU scored its first bucket four minutes, 39 seconds into the game on a a Joe Palmer 3-pointer.

The Rams clawed back with forward Joel Scott, who had 20 points in the loss effort, tying the game at 25-25 with 6:48 left in the half.

The Lobos would clamp down again, holding CSU without a bucket for that final 6:48 and taking a 33-25 lead into halftime after closing the half on an 8-0 run while the Rams missed their final eight shots of the half, just like they did their first eight shots.

The second half was more of the same as UNM took its largest lead (16 points) on a Mustapha Amzil 3-pointer with 9:03 left and coasted to the win from there, including a House steal and breakaway layup with 2:31 remaining for 67-56 lead — a play that just seemed to represent the game.

"Some of them (CSU's 14 turnovers) came in really key moments where we just couldn't afford the turnover because we were down, but you can't compound," Medved said. "... We had too many turnovers that led to touchdowns tonight, right? Turnovers that just led to a direct score for them."

Joining House and Toppin in double figure scoring for the Lobos was Amzil, a reserve forward who had 10 points, two steals and three blocks in his 22 minutes off the bench. Nelly Junior Joseph had nine points and 12 rebounds.

Scott's 20 points led CSU while senior point guard Isaiah Stevens was held in check, by his lofty standards, with 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting, two assists and five turnovers.

QUICK TURNAROUND: After the game, by the time postgame media obligations were done and the team got back to the hotel, it was already 12:30 a.m. local time Saturday by the time players got to their rooms.

That's less than 15 hours from a championship game on national television with a guaranteed trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line (the Mountain West champion receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament).

The Lobos last won the Mountain West Tournament in 2014, which was also the last year the team played in the NCAA Tournament.

FAMILIAR FOE: Here is the history of SDSU and UNM in the MW championship game:

—2012: No. 2 UNM 68, No. 1 SDSU 59

—2014: No. 2 UNM 64, No. 1 SDSU 58

—2018: No. 5 SDSU 82, No. 3 UNM 75

BUBBLE TROUBLE? Entering the tournament, the consensus thought was the Lobos winning twice — vs. Air Force and Boise State — would likely be enough to earn an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

The problem is, that was with the assumption that several other teams would likely lose in their conference tournaments much sooner than they did, if at all.

So, even with the CSU win under their belt, the Lobos may still be on shaky ground if they don't beat the Aztecs, something neither Pitino nor Medved understand.

"After winning tonight, I don't see how they're not in the tournament," Medved said. "... I believe after tonight for sure New Mexico deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament."

NET GAINS: The Lobos moved up to No. 22 in the NCAA's NET rankings and up to 25 in, which would be the third best KenPom ranking in program history (KenPom dates back to 1997 season).

San Diego State is 18 in the NET.