GAME NOTES: It has taken until now for the top two teams in the Mountain West Conference to finally match up against each other, as the New Mexico Lobos welcome the sixth-ranked San Diego State Aztecs into The Pit.
Since the 2009-10 campaign, one of these teams has claimed at least a share of the regular-season title in the MWC and taken the conference tournament crown so this game, along with the season finale at Viejas Arena on March 8 are probably the most anticipated on the entire league schedule for 2013-14.
The Aztecs, who recently had a lengthy 20-game win streak snapped by Wyoming on the road back on Feb. 11, are building momentum once again with back-to- back victories in the last week. On Tuesday night, the team shut down a slumping Utah State squad in California with a 60-45 final in order to move to 12-1 in league action.
Second in the MWC standings are the Lobos (11-2), winners of two straight and eight of the last nine. Wednesday night saw UNM, a team which has won the league tournament title in each of the last two seasons, knock off UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center, 68-56, exacting revenge for a rare loss in The Pit last month.
The Lobos lead the all-time series by a count of 42-33 and have won 26 of the 35 meetings played in Albuquerque over the years.
With points hard to come by on both sides, the Aztecs called on Matt Shrigley to give them a boost off the bench earlier this week against Utah State and he delivered with a career-high 15 points, shooting 4-of-7 behind the 3-point line. Josh Davis and Skylar Spencer checked in with 12 and 10 points, respectively, the former also clearing eight rebounds as the team focused more on defense than anything else -- holding Utah State to a mere 17 field goals on 50 attempts.
Although he was held to single digits by the Aggies, Xavier Thames is still the leading scorer for the Aztecs in conference play this season with his 18.5 ppg, feasting at the free-throw line where he has converted 83.6 percent of his 110 attempts. Thames is also first in the assists department with 40, against only 16 turnovers in 13 games. Winston Shepard provides another 12.5 ppg and Davis 9.0 ppg as well as 10.5 rpg as the Aztecs claim a rebounding advantage of 3.2 per game over the competition.
Like SDSU, the Lobos also called on their defense to make a difference in their most recent outing as they turned in a 12-point win on the road against UNLV. New Mexico limited the Runnin' Rebels to just 31.7 percent shooting from the field and 3-of-21 behind the 3-point line, and it also helped that the hosts shot themselves in the foot at the free-throw line (15-of-26) as well. Leading the way for the visitors was Kendall Williams with 29 points on 11- of-17 shooting from the floor, followed by Cameron Bairstow with 18 points, six rebounds and five blocked shots.
Before the season began it was expected that Williams would be one of, if not the top performer in the MWC this season, but even on his own team he tends to take a back seat now to Bairstow. The big man not only leads the program in scoring in conference games with 20.4 ppg, he is second on the glass (7.1 rpg) as he shoots 57.1 percent from the floor. Williams does come in with 16.8 ppg, hitting on 41.4 percent of his 3-point tries while handing out almost five assists per game, but more often than not the focus tends to be in the paint for the Lobos these days.
Defense is the name of the game for the Aztecs, swarming at both ends of the floor as they hold league opponents to only 59.8 ppg, but they'll have to work a little harder tonight to keep New Mexico down in front of a rowdy Albuquerque crowd.
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