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San Diego State snaps New Mexico's 15-game win streak, secures spot in MWC title game

LAS VEGAS -- Only one team on New Mexico's schedule has given the eighth-ranked Lobos matchup problems.

It's the one that kept them from getting a chance to cut down the nets again at the Mountain West Conference tournament.

San Diego State escaped with a 72-69 upset of the top-seeded Lobos in the semifinals Friday night when Dairese Gary missed a runner in the final second, then the fourth-seeded Aztecs added two free throws to ice their return trip to the conference championship.

"We were just trying to stop him from going to the basket," said Malcolm Thomas, one of San Diego State's two big men who gave the Lobos fits all three times they played -- two of them wins by the Aztecs.

"We knew Gary would get the ball. I saw the ball and I actually tipped it, but he got it back and got the shot off, but we were lucky that he missed it," Thomas said. "My nerves were just all over the place."

The Lobos (29-4), who split their series with the Aztecs during conference play, saw their 15-game winning streak snapped but they're counting on still getting a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament when the pairings are announced Sunday.

The Aztecs (24-8) in all likelihood secured their own trip to the NCAA tournament, although they'd prefer to get in via the league's automatic bid if they can win the championship Saturday night against UNLV.

"I think we've added to the resume with this win today," was all Aztecs coach Steve Fisher would say about that.

New Mexico coach Steve Alford didn't mind making the case for the Aztecs after they handed his team its first loss since Jan. 9.

"We're 29-4. Our RPI going into this game was 6. We've won 10 road games. We won 15 in a row. We've been in the top 10 now for the better part of three weeks, the top 10 in the country. We've lost four games -- two of them have been to San Diego State," Alford said. "So there's no doubt in my mind that they're one of the teams that should be in this tournament."

That spirited appeal can also serve as the Lobos' case for not slipping in the eyes of the selection committee.

This was a great game that came down to the final half-second.

"It would have been criminal if we had lost on that last drive," Fisher said.

The Lobos don't have any big men, and yet they set a school record for wins in a season and will likely get the highest seed in the NCAA tournament than any team in the 11-year history of the MWC.

"There's only one game that we've been able to play those two bigs together, and it's against San Diego State," Alford said of A.J. Hardeman and Will Brown, his tallest players at 6-foot-8.

"You know, hopefully in the NCAA tournament, we'll get a favorable matchup to where we're not playing against a huge team, because we're deficient there," Alford said. "We're very vulnerable there with the lack of size that we have on this year's team. We knew that going into the year.

"That's what's so amazing about this team. To play 33 games and win 29 with nobody over 6-8 is amazing. So this is a tough matchup for us. Yet we've had three really good games against them. We've come on the short end of two of them."

Trailing 70-69, the Lobos had the ball under their basket with 7.4 seconds left. Gary grabbed the inbounds pass and sped upcourt but stumbled at the top of the key and couldn't get off a clean shot.

"The ball got loose," Gary said. "I don't know how much time it was, so I grabbed it and tried to put it in, and it didn't go in."

Kawhi Leonard grabbed the rebound for the Aztecs and was fouled by Hardeman with seven-tenths of a second left. He sank both shots and Gary was way short on a desperation heave that would've sent it into overtime.

The Lobos had been 24-0 this season when taking a lead into the locker room, as they did Friday night, and 12-0 in games decided by six points or less.

Billy White, a native of Las Vegas, led the Aztecs with 28 points and Leonard added 15 points and 13 rebounds as San Diego State advanced to the title game for the second straight year. Last time, they lost by two points to Utah.

Gary's 17 points led the Lobos, who took a 39-38 lead at the break.

D.J. Gay's 3-pointer with just over a minute remaining gave San Diego State a 70-66 lead, but Gary's 3-pointer made it a one-point game. Gary had the ball in his hands with a chance to win it after Gay's errant 3 with 11 seconds left.

"I'm looking and I'm saying, fast-forward that clock so it runs out," Fisher said. "We hung on some way, somehow."

Alford had no qualms about the Lobos' play.

"As I told our guys, we haven't had this feeling in two months, 61, 62 days, so it's been a long time. We've been on a great run," Alford said. "We just ran out of time at the end."