New Mexico beats San Diego State to win Mountain West

Brendall O'Bannon-NCAA Photos
New Mexico beats defending national runner-up San Diego State 68-61 to win the Mountain West championship and advance to the NCAA tourney for the first time in a decade.

LAS VEGAS–There won’t be any Selection Sunday heartbreak for this pack of Lobos.

New Mexico won their first Mountain West championship in a decade on Saturday afternoon, beating title-game mainstay San Diego State 68-61. The Lobos haven’t made the tournament since that 2013-2014 season, but this group of seniors led by Jaelan House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. left nothing up to chance with their crunch-time performance under the bright Vegas lights.

It’s a return to The Big Dance that couldn’t come soon enough for one of college basketball’s great fanbases, and truly one of the great fanbases in American sports.

“I think it’s one of the best fan bases in college basketball. I truly, truly believe it. They are as invested in this program on a daily basis as a Kentucky where I grew up for eight years. I don’t see a whole lot of a difference, and they’re loyal,” said coach Richard Pitino. “When (I) first got here, we were 303 in the NET. Half the building was empty. To get guys like Jaelen House and Jemal Mashburn to come to your school without ever seeing campus and then being able to have this pay off, it’s an amazing journey.”

The win also made New Mexico the first team in Mountain West history to win four games in four days, from the opening round on Wednesday to Saturday’s championship game.

“It’s just a testament to our group and our toughness. We’ve gone through so much stuff this year either individually, together,” said Mashburn Jr., “We’ve been through the ups and downs together, but we’ve never separated. We continue to work throughout our struggles. It’s just a testament to our toughness and how we just keep going, and everybody is just on the same page at all times.”

It was a thrilling finale that was fitting for what was, quite simply, the greatest season in Mountain West history. And it was even more fitting that the last team on the bubble of making a six bid Mountain West reality was the team that ended up running the table and winning the whole thing.

“It was just made for TV every single night. Great players. Great coaches. Fan bases that truly care. I remember coming here thinking, alright, maybe it’s a little bit of a step down from the Big Ten. It didn’t feel like it on a nightly basis,” Pitino said. “It really didn’t. I mean, packed houses, national TV. There were just wars every night. I know I got better as a coach going against some of these amazing coaches and programs. It was a long, long season, but very rewarding.”

Only one seed separated San Diego State and New Mexico on paper, but the two programs faced starkly different realities in terms of what Saturday’s Mountain West championship game meant.

For New Mexico, a win would mean that their at-large bubble bid questions would be answered and their ticket to the Big Dance would be signed, sealed and delivered. Oh, and it would be their first trip to the ball since 2014.

For San Diego State, a win on this stage is expected, but the stakes weren’t nearly has high as what the Lobos faced. San Diego State is the national runner-up, and with that came a grace that other teams in the Mountain West didn’t get when they were in their prescribed funk. In fairness, they also didn’t lose to Air Force.

I say all that to say this, San Diego State was already locked into the tournament no matter what happened in Saturday’s title game. New Mexico may very well have been fighting for their lives.

“They were always talking that New Mexico was on the bubble. Their NET ranking was in the 20s. I didn’t ever see that,” said San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher. “They left all doubt to rest by winning the title. I can’t believe there will be anything less than six Mountain West teams in The Dance.”

One thing is for sure, Jaelan House and Jamal Mashburn came out and played like it. The Lobos backcourt comnined for 28 of the Lobos’ 36 points en route to a six point lead heading into halftime. The Lobos had chances to enter the break with a double digit lead, if it wasn’t for a 4-0 SDSU run in the final minute of the half.

House proved he could be one of the premier personalities of March Madness in a few weeks, and not just with his play. House, who has become well known for his brash behavior on the court, had the crowd in the palm of his hands as he poured in 15 points in the first half, including x three pointers.

On San Diego State’s end, a six point halftime deficit is basically nothing. After all, they erased double-digit first half deficits to UNLV and Utah State in their two wins that got them to Saturday’s title game. They even spotted New Mexico five points to start the second half to finally stretch that lead to double-digits, and then subsequently went on a 14-2 run over the next five and a half minutes to take a 43-42 lead over the Lobos with 12:12 remaining.

The next ten minutes of hoop was tense on both sides. Jaedon Ledee kept getting his usual work from the line, and the refs seemed like they we’re on track to give him a kind enough whistle throughout the last few miunutes to let him push the Aztecs over the finish line from the charity stripe.

Jaelan House and the Lobos had other plans. Down 59-57 with 5:35 remaining, the son of NBA champion Eddie House led a 10-0 run that not only gave New Mexico the lead but iced the game down the stretch and in turn put the official hole punch in their ticket for The Big Dance. Their first in a decade.

“We have a fan base, and we have a community that really, really cares,” said Pitino. “I’m so very appreciative of their support and appreciative of all that believe-in-us and stick-with-us through highs and lows. So I hope they are enjoying this moment just like we are.”