LAS VEGAS – It took just a week for the New Mexico Lobos to get some sweet revenge.
On March 8, the 20th-ranked Lobos blew a 16-point lead in the final 12 minutes of their Mountain West Conference regular-season, title-deciding loss at San Diego State.
But one week later, the Lobos got sweet payback with a 64-58 victory Saturday over the eighth-ranked Aztecs in the Mountain West tournament championship game at Thomas & Mack Center.
New Mexico senior forward and tournament MVP Cameron Bairstow scored a game-high 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds, while Kendall Williams added 16 points, including a game-clinching 3-pointer with 26 seconds to go.
New Mexico became the first team in Mountain West history to win three consecutive tournament championships.
It also earned the Lobos the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“I think it’s hard to beat any great team three times,” the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Bairstow, who averaged 20.3 points and 9.0 rebounds in three tournament games, said. “That’s what they are, a great team.
“We know we let one slip in San Diego. At the same time we understood that we did have them right where we wanted them. We just had to show up with that same mindset that we would beat them. Fortunately, we were able to close it out at the end.”
It wasn’t easy.
The Lobos (27-6) appeared to have the game comfortably in hand when Bairstow sank a free throw to give New Mexico a 56-49 lead with 2:34 left.
San Diego State (29-4), which forced 15 turnovers, rallied to take a 57-56 lead on a three-point play by forward Dwayne Polee II after a steal by forward Winston Shepard.
Bairstow answered with a fast-break three-point play of his own a few seconds later to put the Lobos back in front for good, 59-57. After Polee missed on a tough drive to the basket, Williams delivered the dagger with a long 3-pointer from top of the key that just beat the shot clock.
Williams had missed a similar 3-point try in the loss at San Diego State but didn’t flinch when he had a chance to redeem himself this time around even though he had fired up an air-ball on a trey earlier in the game.
“My coach has a lot of confidence in me to take those shots,” Williams said. “I missed in San Diego.
“Everyone said if I had a chance again to shoot it, shoot it. I did. It went in. That’s the end of that.”
Noted New Mexico coach Craig Neal, “It’s funny, when Kendall shot the last shot, it’s similar to the shot he took to (try to) win it at San Diego State. For some reason I thought it was going to go in, and it did.”
San Diego State point guard Xavier Thames, who scored a team-high 15 points, missed on an off-balance 3-pointer, and Bairstow then sealed the win with two free throws after getting fouled on the rebound.
“We just didn’t knock down shots,” said Thames, who was named Mountain West Player of the Year earlier in the week.
Shepard, who had 13 points, seven rebounds and three steals, finished the scoring with a free throw with 7.7 seconds remaining.
“This was a tremendously hard-fought game between two very good basketball teams,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “We’re disappointed that we didn’t get the opportunity to cut the nets down. But we’re proud of what we’ve done and how we’ve done it.”
Fisher is hopeful the Aztecs will still receive a top four seed in a regional when the NCAA Tournament pairings are released on Sunday.
“We competed from wire to wire, and we just didn’t quite have enough to finish,” Fisher said. “But if we continue to play that way, we’ll have a chance to be playing after the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. That’s our goal now.”
Guard Hugh Greenwood finished with 12 points and five assists and center Alex Kirk added eight points and a game-high 11 rebounds for the Lobos.
NOTES: New Mexico improved to 4-1 in Mountain West championship games. … The Lobos also broke the tournament record for consecutive wins with
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