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After a stunning win over New Mexico brought home another Mountain West championship Saturday night, the Aztecs men’s basketball team stands at the top of San Diego’s major sports concerns.
In the pantheon of (major, team, played by men) American sports, San Diego is generally considered an also-ran. Forbes magazine ranked our fair city the fifth-most miserable last year, citing a dearth of championships and two NBA teams that have long since moved elsewhere.
That narrative of sporting despair is being rewritten.
After a three-year postseason absence, the Chargers won 10 games in advancing to the second round of the NFL playoffs before falling to the Super Bowl-bound Denver Broncos.
The collegiate footballers of San Diego State put up 49 points while routing Buffalo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The victory capped a fourth-straight winning season and bowl appearance for the Aztecs.
The Padres … well, at least their baseball games will finally be broadcast throughout San Diego County.
And finally, after a stunning win over New Mexico brought home another Mountain West championship Saturday night, the Aztecs men’s basketball team stands at the top of San Diego’s major sports concerns.
The road to the second-most successful regular season in team history wasn’t easy. The archrival Lobos came to Viejas Arena ranked 21st in the nation and carrying a 15-2 conference win-loss record, tied with the Aztecs for the Mountain West lead. New Mexico’s confidence was brimming after a resounding defeat of the Aztecs at The Pit, the Lobos’ infamous home floor, just two weeks earlier.
Deep into the second half, it appeared SDSU would again find no answer to New Mexico’s athletic twin towers, the 6-foot-9 Cameron Bairstow and 7-foot Alex Kirk. “You can’t teach 7-foot”, as the saying goes, and the two big men were schooling their slimmer Aztec counterparts in the paint. After a layup-layup-dunk-jumper sequence from Kirk and Bairstow pushed New Mexico’s lead to a potentially insurmountable 16 points with 12 minutes left, Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher rolled the dice with a strategic defensive shakeup.
“So after another dunk and a layup and a dunk, I said, `Timeout. We’re going to the 1-3-1,’ Fisher said. “For some crazy reason, it worked. They no longer were able to pull the ball into the low post. I know they were taken off guard, so were our kids. It got us obviously back into the game.”
When the lanky Aztecs began swarming New Mexico in the seldom-used (for them) 1-3-1 zone defense, it was New Mexico that couldn’t find the answers. SDSU charged back to take a 44-42 lead with five minutes to go, and were able to hold off the Lobos for a 51-48 win that sent the Viejas Arena crowd into a frenzied court-storming celebration.
The 27-3 MWC Champion Aztecs now head back to Las Vegas as the No. 1 seed in the Mountain West Conference tournament, where they will play the winner of the Utah State/Colorado State game at noon on Thursday. Two wins in Vegas could set up a potential rubber match with second-seeded New Mexico on Saturday at 3 p.m.
Should the Aztecs win out and take the MWC tournament crown, they could theoretically be awarded an advantageous two-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The currently 10th-ranked Aztecs have been projected as a No. 3 seed. A repeat of their dramatic win over New Mexico in the conference tournament would put them in the conversation for a more favorable draw.
Begone, calcified old doldrums of San Diego sport. The Aztecs are banishing your paradigm to distant memory.