Mountain West Tournament Diary: Semifinal FridayPosted by AMurawa on March 10th, 2012
Less than two minutes into the nightcap on semifinal Friday night, New Mexico found itself in a hole, down 12-0 to UNLV on the Rebels’ home court, a place where UNLV had not lost since last year’s Mountain West Tournament. Not only were they clicking on all cylinders (they had gotten threes from Chace Stanback and Anthony Marshall and a couple of old-fashioned three-point plays from Oscar Bellfield), but the Lobos looked awful, struggling to do simple things like catch the ball. But the Lobos responded. “They gave us a good punch in the face right there to start the game,” said head coach Steve Alford. “But there’s a lot of game left. They scored 17 points in the first three minutes of the half, then only scored 17 points the last 17 minutes of the half. After that initial barrage of points, we settled down and played extremely good defense.” The Lobos packed their defense in, dared the Rebels to hit threes against them, and that dare paid off. UNLV started three-for-three from deep in the first four minutes, then made just five of their 21 attempts over the final 36 minutes. UNM didn’t try to force anything defensively (in fact, they forced just three turnovers on the night), but made the Rebels have to score over them.
More importantly, however, the Lobos dominated the Rebels inside. Led by RTC MW Player of the Year Drew Gordon (who hit eight of 10 field goal attempts on his way to 19 points and 13 boards), New Mexico grabbed 85% of their defensive rebound opportunities and 26.9% on the offensive end, while outscoring the Rebels in the paint, 30-18. Senior Brice Massamba was generally solid for UNLV, scoring six points and adding nine rebounds before fouling out after 34 minutes, but the rest of their frontcourt was largely absent. Mike Moser had solid stretches at the start and at the end of the game, but was largely invisible in the middle three-quarters of the game, winding up with just three rebounds and 11 points on 5-of-15 shooting. Senior Chace Stanback hit a three on the first offensive possession of each half, but beyond that produced almost literally nothing (one point, one rebound and one assist the rest of the game), a concern as the Rebels head to the NCAA Tournament next week.
Aside from Gordon (who absolutely wore out the Rebels this season, to the tune of 20 points and 15 rebounds per game in their three meetings), Tony Snell and Demetrius Walker stood out as heroes for the Lobos. Walker had his second strong game of the tournament, scoring 12 points in 21 minutes and providing plenty of activity. Snell, meanwhile, shot the ball better than he has since the last time New Mexico played the Rebels on February 18, and also chipped in six boards, six assists and solid defense, displaying an aggressiveness that has been largely missing from his game since before the New Year.
The Lobos will face San Diego State tomorrow afternoon for the Mountain West title after the Aztecs turned in a strong second half to pull away from Colorado State in the first semifinal. After a seesaw first half that saw the Rams take a one-point lead into the locker room, the Aztecs opened the second half on fire, averaging 2.3 points per possession on their first nine trips and building up an 11-point lead, roughly the margin for the rest of the game. After Jamaal Franklin picked up two fouls in the first four minutes, head coach Steve Fisher was forced to go to his bench early – and he was able to get production from up and down his roster. All eight of the players he played scored and grabbed at least one rebound, while all but senior Tim Shelton (who played just 13 minutes) recorded an assist. While Franklin turned in his numbers (19 points, six boards) and Chase Tapley had a stretch of unbelievable plays in the second half on his way to 17 points and six assists, the stars of the game had to be reserves DeShawn Stephens and Garrett Green. Stephens and Green stepped up big while Franklin sat with the early fouls. Before Franklin next checked back into the game eight minutes later, Stephens recorded two points, three boards and two blocks, while Green chipped in six points and a couple rebounds. Really, SDSU did to CSU on Friday night what TCU could not do on Thursday afternoon: take advantage of their lack of size.
The Rams now have to wait until Sunday to see for certain if they will be invited to the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Tim Miles acknowledged that it will be a long wait, but wouldn’t lobby for his team’s inclusion. “We’ve made our case,” he said. “We don’t pass the eye test, the smell test, the airport test. We don’t pass any test, but put me on the floor and let these guys compete and we’ll see.” Given the resume of other teams on the bubble, the Rams should definitely be in. As for the other three teams that played on Friday night, they all are safely in – seeding remains the only question. With UNLV’s resume complete, they look to be headed for a six seed. The fates for SDSU and UNM figure to be roughly similar, but we’ll wait until they wrap up tomorrow to say for sure.