UNM downs Utah State, to face San Diego State fot title
LAS VEGAS, NEV. — The improbable run of The University of New Mexico men’s basketball team continued Friday night as the Lobos rolled past upstart Utah State, 83-68, and into the championship game of the Mountain West Conference Tournament.
It will be the first finals appearance for UNM since 2014. The Lobos (19-14) will face San Diego State, a blowout winner over regular season champion Nevada in Friday’s other semifinal at the Thomas & Mack Center.
It’s a matchup of the two hottest teams in the conference. The Aztecs (21-10) have won eight straight games while the Lobos have won seven in a row.
“We’re both the freshest teams right now,” UNM head coach Paul Weir said. “I think when you look at this tournament and you look at maybe some of the great players that didn’t play as well or some of the great teams that didn’t play as well, I just think they’re out of gas.”
Weir compared the Aztecs to the arch villain in Ivan Drago in Rocky IV; a large, physically imposing opponent brimming with talent.
“They are very talented, they are very good,” Weir said.
Seeded third in the tournament, New Mexico led most of the way against seventh-seeded Utah State (17-17). The Lobos spotted them an early 20-12 lead but roared back with a 20-3 run that was part of a larger 32-12 wave that put UNM in front for good.
The margin grew to as many as 23 points before the Aggies briefly cut it under 10 late in the second half.
Four Lobos finished in double figures, led by 17 from Troy Simons and 16 apiece from Joe Furstinger and Sam Logwood. The team’s leading scorer during the regular season, guard Anthony Mathis, did not score a single point after attempting just four shots in 23 minutes of action.
As is protocol with the postgame press conferences, the head coach from each team selects two players to join him up on the stage. Weir chose Logwood and Simons, two players the coach suspended for a good portion of the MWC schedule.
“I picked these two guys to come up here on purpose because they both have been through a lot this year, with me and themselves,” Weir said. “They’re kind of emblematic of our team.”
The fact that neither player called it quits after falling out of favor, “still counts for something,” Weir said.
“I’m just happy to be a part of this team,” Simons said. “Me and Sam been through some things this year with the team and they accepted us back on the team and we just came together as a family and we’re playing as a family right now.”
“We’re enjoying basketball again,” Logwood said. “There’s times where you don’t enjoy playing it and it really gets to you. Actually having fun playing basketball is what’s really helping us win a lot of these games.”
UNM took control of the game by doing what Weir planned to do all along; by pushing the game’s pace well beyond Utah State’s comfort zone. That frenetic style forced 14 turnovers and a number of hurried shots.
The Aggies went more than eight minutes without hitting a field goal late in the first half. Sam Merrill had a team-high 17 points but he faced heavy pressure after getting off to a hot start with a pair of 3-pointers in the early going.
One element of Friday’s game that drew the ire of Weir and his staff was the five offensive rebounds by Utah State. As is the norm under Weir, the team will have to run win sprints for every offensive rebound given up. In this case, those sprints will come Saturday morning in the team’s pregame shoot around.
“Whatever it happens to be, our principles are our principles and we have to stick through them no matter when that happens to be,” Weir said.
This will be UNM’s sixth appearance in the MWC Tournament championship, having gone 4-1 in the previous five. … San Diego State has now reached the finals in eight of the last 10 years. The Aztecs are 2-7 in the other appearances. … The Lobos made just seven 3-pointers and have 14 in two games during the tournament. They came in averaging more than 11 per game.