Mountain West Conference Tournament Championship Game
(1) New Mexico 63 (3) UNLV 56
The New Mexico Lobos were the best team in the Mountain West Conference during the long regular season. They were the best team in the Mountain West Conference during the past four days in Las Vegas.
New Mexico won three games at the Thomas and Mack Center, punctuated by Saturday’s triumph over the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in the championship game of the MWC Tournament. The victory gives New Mexico a strong claim on a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, which would be the highest seed in the history of the program. Coach Steve Alford’s club played its typical brand of ball against UNLV, wearing down an opponent with defense and getting clutch shots from someone in the lineup.
In past weeks, various players have been the “special someone” for New Mexico. Kendall Williams threw down 46 points in the season-changing win over Colorado State (on Feb. 23) that enabled New Mexico to win the Mountain West regular season title. Big man Alex Kirk dominated San Diego State on Feb. 27, scoring 25 points against the Aztecs’ overwhelmed front line. New Mexico doesn’t rely on any one guy to get crucial points in difficult situations against formidable foes, but someone is almost always able to answer the bell in a moment of need, and that’s why this team has been so good on such a consistent basis in 2013.
On Saturday, the step-up (and standout) guy for New Mexico was Tony Snell. With the Lobos clinging to a tenuous 46-45 lead with under 8:20 left in regulation, UNLV had to feel very good about its chances, given the fact that it was playing in its own building. New Mexico’s offense is prone to scoring droughts, and the Lobos were scuffling at that point. Someone needed to emerge, and Snell stepped into the breach.
Snell hit a three-pointer to begin to turn the tide for UNM. After UNLV scored, Snell scored the next seven points of the game to give the Lobos a 56-47 lead with 3:48 left. UNLV’s Bryce Dejean-Jones hit two tough threes to pull the Rebels within three points, at 56-53, with 2:19 on the clock, but Snell – following a UNLV miss – banged in a three with 1:06 to go to put New Mexico up by a 59-53 margin. Snell was everything that UNLV shooting guard Katin Reinhardt wasn’t on Saturday. Whereas Snell hit clutch shot after clutch shot, Reinhardt – who finished 4 for 16 from the field – missed a tying triple with 1:41 to go when UNLV trailed by three. When Snell responded at the other end of the floor, the Rebels lost their last best chance to win. UNLV won’t feel great about this game or its outcome, but the Rebels certainly did play a lot better in this tournament when compared to the final two weeks of the regular season. If UNLV can carry this past week of form to the NCAA tournament, it might be able to make some noise.
New Mexico, though, is the Mountain West’s big hope in March. Since the Mountain West was formed in 1999, the league has not placed a single team in the Elite Eight. Forget about the Final Four; the Mountain West merely needs to get past the Sweet 16 first. New Mexico has not made the Sweet 16 since 1974. This is the moment for the Lobos to make some history for their own program… and for their conference as well.