San Diego State meets a rejuvenated New Mexico basketball team tonight in the semifinal round of the Western Athletic Conference tournament at the Special Events Center here.
The Lobos--who had been given up for all-but dead after losing to Hawaii, SDSU and Texas El Paso--have won three straight games. First, they upset nationally ranked Oregon State, then they beat Wyoming, and Wednesday in Albuquerque they defeated Colorado State, 62-56, in the first round of the tournament to advance to tonight's game.
"We're on a roll," said New Mexico Coach Gary Colson. "Just when we appeared to be dead and were packing up our gear, we go to Oregon State and get back in the groove."
Furthermore, the Lobos (18-11 overall, 9-7 in the WAC) are playing relatively close to home, and in a building that has not been kind to the Aztecs (21-7, 11-5). San Diego State is 0-7 in the Special Events Center--all of those losses coming against UTEP.
But San Diego State Coach Smokey Gaines is less concerned about that than he is about his team's lack of experience in high-pressure situations.
"The pressure kind of got to them during those last two games," said Gaines, referring to consecutive losses to Colorado State and Hawaii. "You can't buy that experience. Once you've gained the experience of playing in the NCAA, you have something."
The hope of qualifying for the NCAA tournament is why Gaines says tonight's game (6 o'clock, KSDO-1130 AM, Ch. 69) is probably the Aztecs' most important in his six years at the school.
The San Diego State-New Mexico winner will advance to Saturday afternoon's championship game against the winner of tonight's other semifinal game: Utah vs. UTEP.
An automatic berth in the NCAA tournament is granted to the winner of the WAC tournament. At-large tournament bids will be announced Sunday afternoon.
Gaines doesn't think it's fair, but he believes his team has to win the tournament to get an NCAA bid.
"Seventh-place teams in conferences back East might get a bid," Gaines said, "and I don't believe they are better than us. I think at least two teams from the WAC should go this year."
"But I don't think the people who vote know there is anything going on this side of the Mississippi," Colson said.
Colson's club went 24-11 and lost to UTEP in the championship game of the WAC tournament last season, but the Lobos were ignored by the NCAA tournament's selection committee.
Aztec forward Michael Kennedy, for one, thinks he and his teammates will respond well to the pressure.
"I'm confident that our game will be uplifted during this tournament," Kennedy said. "The attitude has been much better, and we talked a lot about moving on offense and not being stagnant.
"The last couple of games, Leonard (Allen) and I didn't get the ball much inside."
Getting the ball inside once again will be the responsibility of guard Creon Dorsey, who led the WAC in assists, averaging 5.7 per game.
Dorsey has been hampered throughout the second half of the season with a sore right heel, ankle and knee. The 12-day layoff between the end of the regular season and tonight's game did not help Dorsey, and he said he probably will have arthroscopic surgery on his knee after the season.
In addition to leading the team offensively, Dorsey must attempt to contain New Mexico guard Kevin Scarborough. Scarborough scored 27 points on Feb. 16 in San Diego, but the Aztecs beat the Lobos, 99-80. New Mexico won the regular-season meeting in Albuquerque, 94-85, on Jan. 18.
Tonight, the Aztecs also will need strong games from guard Anthony Watson and center Allen, neither of whom gave a performance consistent with his All-WAC status in the Aztecs' final two games.
Watson, the team's leading scorer with a 17.2 average, had just 10 points against Hawaii and 4 against Colorado State before fouling out.
"I realize I have to move a lot without the ball," Watson said. "And if they play a box-and-one against me, I've got to start off on the opposite side of the ball, and run off picks."
Watson is one of many Aztecs happy to be playing New Mexico rather than first-round loser Colorado State.
The Rams are bigger and more physical inside than New Mexico, and they have better outside shooters.
Colorado State also plays more physical defense. Against the Rams, Watson averaged 10.5 points. Against New Mexico, he scored a season-high 27 points in Albuquerque, and he had 25 points, 9 assists, 8 steals, and 3 rebounds in San Diego.
In both games against the Lobos, the Aztecs fell behind early. In Albuquerque, SDSU stayed with a man-to-man defense throughout most of the game and was never able to make up a 20-point, first-half deficit.
After the Lobos jumped to a 18-8 lead in San Diego, Gaines quickly switched to a 2-3 zone. The Lobos, who led the WAC in field-goal percentage with a .513 mark, were bottled up inside and were forced to shoot 15-foot jumpers.
As usual, the Aztecs will open in a man-to-man tonight, but Gaines said he will not hesitate to switch to a 2-3 zone.
"We need to control the game and the tempo," Gaines said. "Teams that open in a zone have a tendency to sit around."
Sitting around is the last thing the Aztecs need. After all, they are coming off a 12-day layoff.
It is a layoff that has given them time to regroup and psych themselves for what could be either a last hurrah or a memorable weekend in Aztec basketball history.
"We're here," Kennedy said. "Now we have to overcome."