A great start to the second half allowed New Mexico to pull off a 58-44 upset over No. 6 San Diego State.
The Aztecs entered this conference road game with an impressive 23-2 record to move into the Top 10 in both polls. However, they struggled to score in the first half and barely held on to a seven-point deficit at the half.
Things did not stay close for long as New Mexico was quickly able to pull away, thanks to some big runs, as noted by Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal:
The Lobos have have scoring runs of 9-0 and 12-0 here in the second half. Lead No. 6 San Diego State 52-29 w/ 9:26 remaining. #mwbb— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) February 23, 2014
The Lobos kept the pressure on and were able to come away with a dominant home victory. Seth Davis of CBS Sports noted the surprise with the result:
Would you have taken San Diego State plus 20?— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) February 23, 2014
However, ESPN's Andy Katz pointed out that the home court at "The Pit" has created plenty of upsets over the years:
Covered a slew of games in the Pit and this is coming across like a classic Pit game. "A mile high and louder than...." Lobos on a roll.— Andy Katz (@ESPNAndyKatz) February 23, 2014
San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher discussed what makes playing at University Arena so difficult in a pregame press conference, via GoAztecs.com:
Their fans are incredible, a lot like ours here. They're loud and very supportive of their team without being too hard on the opposition. They're good basketball fans. They know good basketball and appreciate good basketball.
They're loud, they're proud and they make it hard on the opposition. Everybody talks about the altitude, but we think we've done a good job of performing in altitude over the years.
It seems like his team was unable to cope with the altitude or the fans, and they ended up losing for just the third time this season.
Of course, a lot of the credit has to go to the players, especially Cameron Bairstow, who finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds in the win. He got a lot of help on the defensive end from Alex Kirk, who was a force down low with eight rebounds and five blocks to prevent San Diego State from getting comfortable in the paint.
The Aztecs were held to just 32.3 percent shooting in the game, and only Winston Shepard managed to reach double figures with 10 points in the loss.
These two teams are now tied on top of the Mountain West standings at 12-2 with four games remaining. This is certain to make the rematch set for March 8 much more exciting.
Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: A+
While it took a team effort to win this game, Bairstow was clearly the star in the upset win. He was a monster in the low post, totaling 26 points on 11-of-18 from the field while also having a game-high 11 rebounds.
He was also incredibly efficient with the ball as he went the entire game without a turnover, despite getting a lot of touches.
Raphielle Johnson of College Basketball Talk noted how good the forward has been all season:
I have to agree with @franfraschilla on Cameron Bairstow. He’s an All-American. Period. 1st, 2nd or 3rd team, it has to happen.— Raphielle Johnson (@raphiellej) February 23, 2014
Considering he came close to outscoring all of San Diego State, it was clear he was the best player on the floor.
Alex Kirk, New Mexico: B
Great players find a way to contribute even when their shots are not falling. The team's third-leading scorer was only able to total six points in the win on 3-of-10 shooting, plus four turnovers.
However, Kirk was still a star on the defensive end, accumulating five blocks while altering plenty more shots that did not show up in the box score. He is a big reason the Aztecs could not get any consistent offense going, scoring only 44 points in the loss.
Kirk also added eight rebounds as New Mexico outmuscled their opponent. While this was not the junior's best game, he still played a big factor in the win.
Xavier Thames, San Diego State: D
Over the course of the season, Xavier Thames has been one of the best scorers in the Mountain West. Unfortunately, this is his second straight game where he struggled mightily.
After scoring four points on 1-of-9 shooting against Utah State, Thames only managed seven points on 3-of-15 against New Mexico. He was not settling for jump shots, but he also could not get any looks around the net.
San Diego State has decent balance, but the squad still needs a better effort out of Thames going forward. Otherwise, the Aztecs will struggle to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
New Mexico will look to keep up its recent momentum with another home win against Utah State on Tuesday. San Diego State will return home on Tuesday with a favorable matchup against San Jose State, which is only 1-13 in conference.
With the conference race so close, neither squad can afford a loss at this point in the year.
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