Third time's a charm: UNM bounces Boise State from Mountain West Tournament

Mar. 15—LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Jaelen House realizes he doesn't have many games left in his college basketball career.

So, before hangs 'em up on this stage of his basketball life and moves on to the next, he wants to make sure he ties up some loose ends and checks off a few more boxes on his to-do list.

Thursday night in the Mountain West Tournament quarterfinals, after shooting a dismal 4-of-27 in a pair of regular season losses to the Boise State Broncos, House made sure to pay his debt.

"I felt like I owed them one," said House, whose 29 points and infectious energy led the 6th-seeded UNM Lobos to a 76-66 win over No. 3 Boise State in front of a late-night, Lobo-heavy announced crowd 8,561 in the Thomas & Mack Center.

House's theatrics — and constant blowing of kisses and trash talking interaction with one over-the-top, ball-cap wearing man who sat courtside berating the Lobo senior from pregame warmups through his postgame interview on the court with CBS Sports Network — packaged with the increasingly consistent brilliance of Donovan Dent (22 points, 5 steals) and a historic defensive effort propelled the Lobos to just their second MW semifinal of the past decade.

UNM plays No. 7 Colorado State in another late-starting game scheduled for 9 p.m. local in Las Vegas, (10 p.m. Mountain in New Mexico).

For the Lobos (24-9), they made clear after the game that they believe the Quad-1 level win over the Broncos (22-10) has clinched their spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.

But, without another win over Colorado State in Friday's semifinal (another Quad 1 opportunity), the Lobos' Selection Sunday may be a more uncomfortable one than they seem to think based on where most reputable major bracket projections currently have UNM among a group of about 6-7 teams fighting for 3-4 spots.

"I would be stunned if we're not in the NCAA Tournament after getting that win right there," Pitino said. "... That pressure should be off us a little bit, but we want to go win a championship. It's Friday night in Las Vegas. We should be fired up see if we can go beat Colorado State."

Before that, though, the Lobos first had to figure out the challenge of beating a Broncos team that not only swept them in the regular season, but did so in a physically-imposing, dominant around teh rim sort of way that led to Pitino and players both referring to the games as though they had been "bullied" by Boise State.

The Broncos were still physical, and point guard Roddie Anderson tried to be a bully with a dirty final-minute flagrant foul in which he intentionally pulled House down from behind on a breakaway dunk attempt that nearly led to a fight. But the Lobos were simply too much.

The script for the Lobos victory already seemed to be written less than 2 minutes into the game.

The Lobos scored their first seven points off steals turned into instant points at the other end of the court — a Dent steal and layup, a Jamal Mashburn Jr. steal that led to a Dent 3-pointer in transition and then another Dent steal and layup for a 7-2 lead with 18:01 still showing on the first half clock.

In the same span, Boise State had already gone 0-for-3, missing three heavily contested shots (the Broncos did hit a pair of free throws) and had three turnovers.

By game's end, UNM had 20 points off 12 Boise State turnovers and held the Broncos to 29.4% shooting — the lowest shooting percentage of a Lobo opponent int he 25-year history of the Mountain West Tournament and tied for the lowest opponent shooting percentage of the season for UNM (also 29.4% on a matching 20-of-68 shots in the season opener by Texas Southern).

"We defended our butts off. We rebounded extremely well," said UNM coach Richard Pitino, whose Lobos led by as many as a dozen in the second half, but also held of a late charge in which Boise State cut the lead to four (68-64) in the final minute.

"They came back, but for the most part we just battled our butts off. It was a high-level of toughness. You can't beat Boise unless you scratch, claw, and our guys fought and got a huge, huge win."

UNM blocked seven shots and its 10 steals marked the 12th time this season the Lobos had double digit steals in a game, tying the program record set in 2019-20 and 2004-05.

The key to the game was the Lobos ability to use those steals and stops to get out, run and score in transition, with guards attacking the rim accounting for most of UNM's 40 to 20 advantage in points in the paint and helping score 16 points off 12 Boise State turnovers (UNM averaged just 9.5 points off turnovers in the two regular season games).

And while the Broncos were disappointed with the loss, they made no excuses about what, based on how the regular season went and how the tournament seeding played out — a No. 3 seed losing to a No. 6 seed — looked like an upset, but in reality was not (the Vegas oddsmakers had UNM favored by 1.5 points by tipoff).

"Don't get it twisted. That's the most talented team in the Mountain West top to bottom," Boise State senior guard Max Rice said. "I do not envy the 6, 7 seed that has to play them in the NCAA Tournament.

"We were ready. It wasn't a matter of not being ready. That team, when they're locked in, they're going to beat a lot of teams in this country. They played better than us tonight, and that's that."

House ended up with his 29 points coming on 10-of-21 shooting (47.6%), a huge improvement over that 14.8% regular season showing.

And after man of his layups or big plays, the polarizing, demonstrative guard looked at one fan specifically time and again, jawing with him and sometimes blowing him kisses after that fan, throughout the night, chose to make heckling and berating House his mission.

When the Journal asked House about the exchange in a post-game press conference, with Pitino sitting next to him nervously urging House, "Don't do it. Don't do it," House quickly acknowledged the hat-wearing fan was very much a source of motivation.

"He started before the game even started just on me," House said. "I was, like, all right, I got something for you, and that was it. That was it."

Asked later about House's interaction with the fan, a clearly agitated Pitino, who has been asked about House's interactions with fans multiple times this season as the guard has become clearly the number one target of vocal fan criticism in every arena, said he isn't about to try and stop House, the fifth-year player, at this point of the journey.

"You ask all the time. I don't care," Pitino said. "I wouldn't do it, but that's him. The guy had 29 points. What would I ever do to get in the way of that?

"It (fans heckling him) doesn't affect him. Utah State, they're screaming at him, swearing at him. It doesn't affect him. So what do I care? He's a great kid. He competes his butt off. There's an old expression, I would rather tone down a bronco than warm up a corpse. I don't want to tone him down too much. He's damn good."

Tyson Degenhart led Boise State with 23 points and 12 rebounds.

The winner of Friday's UNM-Colorado State game will play the winner of top-seeded Utah State and No. 5 San Diego State for the conference title on Saturday.

The winner of the conference tournament earns the league's automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

NET GAINS: Friday's new NET rankings, updated after the late Mountain West games ended, have moved the Lobos into having four Quad 1 wins, 3 wuad 3 wins and a NET ranking of 23.

Here are the NET rankings for the six Mountain West teams hoping to make the NCAA Tournament as of Friday morning:

20 San Diego State

23 New Mexico

27 Boise State

30 Utah State

31 Colorado State

34 Nevada

The best NET ranking ever to not receive an invitation into the NCAA Tournament was 33 by NC State in 2019.