New Mexico racks up fifth MWC title in six seasons

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Experience won out over emotion.

New Mexico won its fifth Mountain West Conference title in six seasons Saturday behind 22 points from Brandi Kimble and 21 from fellow senior Dionne Marsh as the fourth-seeded Lobos fended off sixth-seeded San Diego State 62-59.

The Aztecs (18-13) gave a valiant effort in their bid for a third upset in this tournament. They were playing with heavy hearts following the death of 60-year-old Helen Kanavel, the team's administrative assistant who was killed in a traffic accident Friday night.

"We kept her in our minds and just kind of wanted to take into consideration all the support she showed our team," said Allison Duffy, who led San Diego State with 15 points. "It was more like we just wanted to put it out there and play as hard as we could because we knew she wouldn't want us to give up in the end, not to let that get us down, so ... I think that pushed us even harder to play hard."

Seeking their first conference crown and NCAA tournament bid since 1997, when they won the Western Athletic Conference tourney, the young Aztecs jumped out to a nine-point lead 2 1/2 minutes into the second half before the seasoned Lobos chipped away and surged ahead down the stretch when four Aztecs fell into foul trouble, mostly trying to guard Marsh.

"When you play in the post position, it's going to be physical anyway," Marsh said. "You know, it has somewhat to do with experience and hustle. When you're a little bit older, you know a little bit more things to do, you know, to maneuver, get around players, make sure you're getting into position.

"So the girls from San Diego State, they played very well. They're going to be very good coming up in the next two years. But we were just the more aggressive team toward the end and we kept our poise."

The Aztecs still had a shot at sending the game into overtime. Quenese Davis, who scored 12 and whose long 3-pointer brought the Aztecs to 60-59 with 11 seconds remaining, circled around the right elbow and fired up another deep 3 as time expired. It banked high off the glass but hit the iron on its way down and bounced away as the Lobos sprinted to center court to celebrate.

In the end, it was the Lobos (20-12) cutting down the nets for the fifth time since 2003 and clinching their seventh straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

This one was a bit of a long shot. They stood at 14-12 after losing to Utah on Feb. 23 but haven't lost since. The Lobos also won the tournament title in 2003, '04, '05 and '06, but this year they became the lowest seed ever to win the MWC tournament

"This is a team that had some failures," Lobos coach Don Flanagan said. "The top three teams in the league (Utah, TCU and Wyoming), we lost both times to them. All of those games were close. A lot of the times we had leads going into the last four minutes of the game. So we had some disappointments throughout the year.

"For them to come back at this point in the year and play so well and play so confidently, that's a tribute to the effort they gave in practice and the determination they had when they came to this tournament to be successful."

The Aztecs were 0-8 in MWC tournament play before upsetting No. 3 Wyoming and No. 2 TCU to reach the championship.

"I think we finally found ourselves in this tournament," Aztecs sophomore Jene Morris said. "We gained our confidence, and we finally found our flow."