With 12 minutes, four seconds remaining in Saturday night’s game between No. 21 New Mexico and No. 10 San Diego State at Viejas Arena, seven-foot center Alex Kirk hit a jumper to push the Lobos’ lead to 16 points. San Diego State had already lost at New Mexico in February, and it appeared the Lobos were on the verge of completing a season sweep, in a game billed as a de facto Mountain West title bout. Star forward Cameron Bairstow was having his way with San Diego State’s front line, and the Aztecs’ offense had stagnated. Not even a raucous home crowd, with one of the most passionate fan bases in the land, was helping.
But over the next six-plus minutes, San Diego State chipped away at New Mexico’s lead, and the Lobos, fazed by the 1-3-1 zone defense the Aztecs switched into, couldn't generate any offense. Point guard Cullen Neal missed a three. Guard Hugh Greenwood followed suit. Then guard Cleveland Thomas missed a lay-up.
In fact, the only point New Mexico scored between Kirk’s jump shot and a three from guard DeShawn Delaney at the 4:30 mark was a free throw from Bairstow. Aztecs guard Xavier Thames converted a lay-up with just under six minutes left to tie the game at 42, and San Diego State made enough free throws down the stretch to hold on for a 51-48 win. Thames finished with 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting to go with five steals, while Bairstow had 20 points and seven rebounds.
Fans rushed the court afterward to celebrate San Diego State’s third Mountain West regular season championship in the past four seasons.
It’s been a remarkable season for San Diego State. The Aztecs were expected to regress this season after losing stars Jamaal Franklin to the NBA and Chase Tapley to graduation. San Diego State was supposed to take off next season, when the Aztecs welcome in the nation’s No. 12-ranked recruiting class according to Rivals. But thanks to Thames, an effective complement of role players – including glass-cleaning Tulane transfer Josh Davis, point forward J.J. O’Brien, shot-blocking specialist Skylar Spencer and versatile sophomore Winston Shepard – and a defense that ranks 10th nationally in points allowed per possession, the Aztecs have played their way into contention for a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament.
New Mexico had this game won. It will regret not being able to deliver the knockout blow to an offensively-challenged Aztecs team it had on the ropes midway through the second half. But winning at Viejas is not easy, and the Lobos – who should get slotted in the six-to-eight-seed range – won’t face an environment that tough, or an opposing crowd that deafening, in the tourney. In fact, despite Saturday’s result, New Mexico may have a better shot at making a deep March run than San Diego State. The Lobos have three of the Mountain West’s top players in Bairstow, Kirk and guard Kendall Williams – all of whom were named to the MW’s preseason all-conference team – and a top-50 efficiency offense and defense (the Aztecs’ offense is ranked No. 94).
These two teams could meet again in the championship game of the Mountain West Tournament, which tips off Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
Tennessee 72, Missouri 45
It’s unclear how many teams the SEC will send to the NCAA Tournament – three or four seems likely – but Missouri hurt its chances of making the field Saturday by getting blown out at Tennessee. Vols forward Jarnell Stokes scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and point guard Antonio Barton added 16 points and three assists. Both of these teams entered Saturday on the proverbial bubble, and at this point of the season every game for teams with questionable tourney profiles is critical. That the Tigers closed the regular season with an ugly, lopsided loss will not sit well with the selection committee. Missouri will probably have to beat Florida in the quarterfinals of SEC Tournament, which begins Wednesday, to make the field. This win puts Tennessee in better position, but the Vols – despite winning their past three games by an average margin of 31 points – are far from a tourney lock. A win in their SEC quarterfinal – against Arkansas, unless the Razorbacks are upset by Auburn or South Carolina in the second round – should keep them on the right side of the cutline.
Milwaukee 73, Green Bay 66 OT
The question everyone will be asking after Green Bay was upset by Milwaukee Saturday in the semifinals of the Horizon conference tournament: can the Phoenix get an at-large bid? Maybe. Maybe not. Green Bay has played just five games against teams ranked in the top 100 of the RPI. The Phoenix’s win over ACC regular season champion Virginia will go a long way, but the selection committee might not be able to get past sub-100 losses to Milwaukee twice and Valparaiso (though starting center Alec Brown sat out against the Crusaders). The Phoenix, who won the Horizon by two games and rank 52nd in Ken Pomeroy’s team efficiency ratings, could be a trendy pick for a round-of-64 upset. One consolation for Green Bay is Middle Tennessee circa 2013. The Blue Raiders were slotted into the First Four a year ago despite playing just four games – and winning one – against teams ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index.
Illinois 66, (24) Iowa 63
Illini forward Jon Ekey hit a contested three in the final second to sink the Hawkeyes in Iowa City, Ia. Guard Rayvonte Rice scored a game-high 15 points for the Illini. This was yet another close loss for Iowa; six of the Hawkeyes’ 11 losses this season have come by five or fewer points. Had Iowa – who has lost five of its last six – not struggled to close out so many games, the gulf between its NCAA Tournament credentials, as measured primarily by the RPI, and its per-possession statistics (Iowa ranks 14th in Ken Pomeroy’s team efficiency ratings) wouldn’t be so wide. At 9-9, Iowa currently sits in sixth place in the Big Ten standings.
Eastern Kentucky 79, Belmont 73
The Colonels are going dancing for the first time since 2007. Guard Corey Walden shot 8-for-13 from the field for 29 points to lead the Eastern Kentucky past top-seeded Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game. The Bruins, who you probably remember as the team that upset North Carolina in Chapel Hill in November – or, alternatively, the team you’re always tempted to pick to upset a favorite in the first round – have made the NCAA Tournament five times over the last eight years. Eastern Kentucky, led by guards Walden and Glenn Cosey, who finished with 23 points Saturday, was picked first in the OVC preseason coaches poll.
Pittsburgh 83, Clemson 78 OT
A seven-point loss to NC State on Monday seemingly pushed Pittsburgh onto the bubble. Saturday’s game at Clemson might not have been a must win, but another loss would have left Pittsburgh on shaky ground heading into the ACC Tournament. That’s why guard Josh Newkirk’s buzzer-beating jumper to force overtime was so crucial for Pittsburgh. The Panthers, who got 30 points on 10-of-19 shooting and seven rebounds from guard Lamar Patterson, made Newkirk’s J matter by outscoring the Tigers in the extra period. This win likely will keep Pittsburgh in position to earn an at-large berth.
Washington State 73, UCLA 55
Entering Saturday’s game against UCLA, Washington State had scored the fewest and allowed the most points per possession among Pac-12 teams in conference play. It had won just two conference games, against Utah and Washington, and nine games overall this season. Read that set of facts carefully, then try and come up with an explanation for why UCLA – a team slated as a No. 5 seed in most mocks before Saturday – was run off the floor by the Cougars Saturday night in Pullman, Wash. Guard/forward Kyle Anderson scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, but the Bruins other four starters combined to outscored Anderson by only one. The Cougars, meanwhile, got a combined 38 points off the bench from guards Ike Iroegbu, Que Johnson and Dexter Kernich-Drew. There are a million other ways the Bruins would have preferred to close the regular season -- most of them involved a win.
Arkansas 58, Alabama 83
Just when it looked like Arkansas was on the verge of securing an at-large berth, it loses at RPI No. 120 Alabama. The Razorbacks had won six straight before Saturday, including a 30-point dressing-down of Ole Miss on Wednesday. On Saturday, Razorbacks mustered a paltry 0.87 points per possession to Alabama’s 1.24. Crimson Tide guard Trevor Releford had a game-high 24 points. Arkansas has won four games against teams (SMU, Minnesota and Kentucky twice) ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, but sub-100 losses to Texas A&M and Alabama don’t look good. Saturday’s loss won't knock Arkansas out of contention for an at-large bid, but the Razorbacks would do well to avoid getting upset by either Auburn or South Carolina in the second round of the SEC Tournament. Arkansas has not made the NCAAs since 2008, under former coach John Pelphrey.
Wichita State 67, Missouri State 42
Wichita State crushed Missouri State to move within one win of becoming the first team since UNLV in 1990-91 to enter the NCAA Tournament without a loss. Forward Cleanthony Early led the Shockers with 20 points, and guard Tekele Cotton had 13 and four assists. The Shockers have won most of their games in convincing fashion, but they nearly took their first L of the season at MOSU in early January; the Bears led by as much as many as 19 points before Wichita State clawed back and won in overtime. The Shockers will face Indiana State – a team that beat Southern Illinois Saturday in the other semifinal – in the Arch Madness championship game Sunday afternoon. Wichita State is only the third team in Division I history to open 33-0.
Texas Tech 59, Texas 53
Between a loss on Jan. 8 to Oklahoma State and loss at Kansas State on Feb. 8, Texas won seven consecutive games, including four straight (Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor and Kansas) against teams ranked in the top 25 of the AP Poll. But the Longhorns posted a 4-4 record over the final eight games of the regular season and fell to Texas Tech in the season finale Saturday in Lubbock, Texas. Senior forward Jaye Crockett scored 22 points to pace the Red Raiders. Casual fans might have been led to believe the only notable thing that has happened inside United Spirit Arena this season was Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart’s infamous shoving of an obnoxious Red Raiders fan. But Texas Tech has actually beaten a few good teams at home this season. Before Saturday, the Red Raiders knocked off Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.
Oregon State 78, Arizona State 76 OT The Sun Devils have piled up enough quality wins that a loss at Oregon State Saturday should not jeopardize their claim to an at-large bid. Still, it would have been beneficial for Arizona State to win at least one leg of the Oregon road trip (the Sun Devils lost at Oregon on Tuesday). Four Beavers scored in double figures Saturday, and forward Eric Moreland grabbed 19 rebounds to go with 16 points. Oregon State (16-4, 8-10 Pac 12) has not finished above .500 in conference play since coach Craig Robinson was hired before the 2008 season.