By Arnie Leshin
This time it was really the butler who did it, took the basketball to beyond the 3-point line and beat the final buzzer before a disappointed packed crowd at the Pit Saturday night.
Rack it up as the winner for 6-foot-2 junior Lamont Butler, his last of 10 points.
“I thought it was going to be (Matt) Bradley taking the shot,” said University of New Mexico head coach Richard Pitino, “But it still stings, sucks, there’s no other way around it, I thought we had this one.”
The 73-71 Mountain West Conference final pulled off by 22nd-ranked first place San Diego State over UNM’s men thus put another damper on the Lobos’ fading bid for an NCAA berth.
Plus the earlier game on Saturday that saw San Jose State upset second place Boise State, didn’t help their cause, instead putting the Spartans at 8-8 and fifth in the conference ahead of 7-8 UNM. And for San Diego State, it just about clinched the top spot in the MWC over both Boise State and Nevada.
Aso for the Lobos, now they can only take winning the conference tournament to bring an automatic bid for Pitino’s team that does sport an overall record of 21-8. But it doesn’t help to see San Diego State, Boise State and Navada, Utah State, and now San Jose State ahead of Lobo land.
The stretch run schedule won’t help much either, for New Mexico is home Tuesday night to Fresno State, and concludes at Colorado State Friday night. It also matters little that the Spartans are home to Colorado State Tuesday night and at Air Force Saturday night.
And having to play like four games in four days of the conference tournament is like a dog on sandpaper — ‘rough, rough.’
This was also the third time in five weeks that Pitino’s team gave up a buzzer-beater, and was also the sixth setback in seven games for New Mexico, taking it from a virtual lock to land in March Madness to a team reeling and searching for answers.
The Lobos did play a tough, hard game. Their defense smothered the visiting Aztecs most of the way, they led by 12 in the first half, 37-27 at halftime, and by 13 in the second half.
But San Diego State, which had problems handling the pressure of fired-up UNM, kept creeping up after falling behind 56-47 with 10 minutes remaining, finally taking the lead 63-62. It wound up hitting 16 of its last 24 shots that included Butler’s swish just before the red light came on.
It came moments after New Mexico 6-foot-4 junior Jamal Mashburn converted three straight free throws to get his side within 70-69 with 11 seconds to go. Then came a stunning steal by Lobos’ peppy senior Jelen House off a bad pass by Trammel, and he drove nearly the length of the court to toss in a twisting layup with six seconds to go on the clock.
It sent the huge turnout into a frenzy. Except that with no time outs remaining, Butler took the inbounds pass under the Lobos’ basket, dribbled to the top of the key at the other end, didn’t need a 3, but let it sail with a shot that went over Mashburn, and the buzzer sounded as the ball reached the highest point of its arc.
The officials reviewed it, but there was no doubt it was good as the Aztecs bench rushed to pile onto Butler.
It was 5-10 senior guard Darrion Tremell leading the way for the Aztecs with 18 points and 6-4 senior guard Bradley tallied 11. The game high went to Mashburn with 20 points, House added 15 and senior Morris Udeze scored 14.
Udeze also brought down nine rebounds, but San Diego State still held a 36-27 advantage there as senior forward Keshad Johnson hauled in 10.
The Aztecs also had more assists, 17-13, more steals, 6-5, more blocks, 5-1, but more turnovers, 11-10. They hit on 30-of-70 field goal tries to 24-of-54 for the New Mexico, and converted 54.3 percent of their freebies to the Lobos’ 72.7. In 3s, it was the visitors with 40.9 percent to UNM’s 46.7.
But only the final score counts and it was the Butler who cashed it in.