It was a game you had to see to believe. Of course, if there's one thing Aztecs basketball fans are good at, it's believing.
San Diego State overcame a 16-point, second-half deficit to beat New Mexico 51-48 on Saturday night at Viejas Arena, the largest second-half comeback of the Steve Fisher era, to win the regular season Mountain West Conference championship.
The Lobos took charge of the game just before halftime, when senior forward Cameron Bairstow hit a turnaround jumper from an almost impossible angle to beat the buzzer and UNM up 26-20 at the break, which was bad news for San Diego State.
The Aztecs had been just 4-and-3 this season when trailing at halftime, including their blowout loss two weeks ago in Albuquerque.
In the second half, it did not get any better. Bairstow, who led New Mexico with 20 points, and Lobos center Alex Kirk threw down a pair of dunks to pump the Lobos lead up to 41-25. Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher called a time out and implemented an idea assistant coach Justin Hudson had planted just a couple of minutes earlier.
"Justin asked if we wanted to try the 1-3-1 (zone)," said Fisher. "After another layup and dunk I said we're going to the 1-3-1, and for some crazy reason, it worked. They were no longer able to throw it in with ease to the low post. I know they were taken off-guard, and so were our kids."
The Aztecs practice the 1-3-1 zone, which is really the only half court zone they have at the moment, every day but only use it sporadically. They had not employed the defense since their loss at Wyoming a month ago, so as coach said, the only ones more surprised than the Aztecs were the Lobos.
The Aztecs defense allowed the 3rd-fewest points per game in the nation and did it relying heavily on man-to-man coverage. However, against a pair of monsters like Bairstow and Kirk (both at least 6'9" and 250 pounds), the Aztecs simply don't have the personnel to man-up.
The zone pressed UNM into mistake after mistake. The Lobos committed eight turnovers in the final 11 minutes of the game (after only coughing it up eight times in the first 29 minutes) that turned in to 14 Aztecs points.
SDSU erased the 16-point lead in just over five minutes, tying the game at 42 after a pair of great plays by their two seniors. Josh Davis made a monster block, Xavier Thames ended up with it and scored two of his game-high 23 points on a transition basket.
The Aztecs made 14 steals in the game, five from Thames and four from Dwayne Polee, eight of them coming after the switch to the 1-3-1 zone.
SDSU heads to next week's MWC Tournament in Las Vegas as the number one seed. They play at noon on Thursday against the winner of the Colorado State vs. Utah State game, and as if the 10th-ranked team in the nation was not dangerous enough as it is, now they have another weapon to employ.
Oh, and another Championship banner to hang inside Viejas Arena.