New Mexico will lead the Mountain West after Saturday's showdown at San Diego State no matter the result, but a victory could put the Lobos firmly in control of the conference race for now.
The No. 15 Lobos seek their fifth straight win in the teams' first meeting since New Mexico pulled off the upset in the conference tournament final last season.
New Mexico (17-2, 4-0) has made things interesting during its four-game run, winning three times by five points, including once in overtime. The Lobos nearly blew a 22-point lead against Colorado State on Wednesday before hanging on for a 66-61 victory.
Coach Steve Alford wasn't discouraged by his team almost squandering the big lead as it dealt the Rams, one of the top rebounding teams in the nation, their fourth loss in 19 games this season. Colorado State held a 42-28 edge on the glass.
"I'm extremely pleased with our basketball team," he said. "We're pretty good. We're a pretty good basketball team and I think we're getting better because we beat a really good basketball team."
Tony Snell scored 23 points and has averaged 20.3 - 7.7 above his season mark - in the last three games. He had 14 points at halftime.
"It always helps when somebody gets off to a quick start," Alford told the team's official website. "I thought he was really good."
New Mexico leads San Diego State and UNLV by 1 1/2 games for the top spot in the conference. With the Rebels off until next week, the Lobos could end up heading home Saturday with some breathing room in the standings if they can beat the Aztecs for a third straight time.
Both of those Lobos victories came with San Diego State ranked, but the Aztecs (15-4, 3-2) aren't in the poll this time after going 1-2 in their last three. They averted a third loss in a row with a 78-57 win over Nevada on Wednesday after back-to-back losses to UNLV and Wyoming last week knocked them out of the Top 25.
"We're a veteran ball club that knows how to win," coach Steve Fisher said. "This victory started on Sunday when we started watching film. We had not been practicing like a championship team should. We were better the last couple days. I'm not surprised with how we came out and played."
Chase Tapley scored 17 points, Jamaal Franklin added 14 and J.J. O'Brien had 12 for the Aztecs, who went on an 18-3 run late in the second half.
San Diego State limited Nevada to 34.5 percent shooting - 26.1 after the break. It was the fourth game in a row it held an opponent under 36 percent overall.
Fisher hopes the bounce-back performance carries into Saturday's game, as he seemed to leave little doubt that he wants his team back in the rankings.
"We want to be recognized nationally and that only comes from winning. We'll enjoy this for a couple hours. Then get back on the plane, get home and get ready for New Mexico," he said.
Tapley scored a game-high 25 points and went 5 for 9 from 3-point range in the MWC final March 10, but Snell's 14 points helped pace a balanced Lobos attack that gave them the 68-59 upset of then-No. 18 San Diego State and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
New Mexico took the most recent road matchup in the series 77-67 over the then-No. 13 Aztecs on Feb. 15.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved