LAS VEGAS — San Diego State’s Trey Kell has been battling injuries throughout the season, missing parts of eight games through mid-February.
So, when a New Mexico player kneed him in his lower leg during the Mountain West Conference tournament championship on Saturday, he wasn’t surprised.
He also wasn’t coming out of the game.
Kell scored 11 of his game-high 28 points down the stretch to lead San Diego State to an 82-75 come-from-behind victory over the Lobos.
“I felt like I was rolling at the moment, I saw that we were down about six or something like that, so for me, coming out because of an injury wasn’t an option,” Kell said. “I didn’t want to go home. It’s just as simple as that.”
Instead, Kell and the Aztecs (22-10) are headed to the NCAA Tournament with the league’s automatic bid.
San Diego State also got 16 points and five rebounds from Malik Pope and 12 from Devin Watson.
“New Mexico was the one team I didn’t want to play in this thing early,” first-year San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “(Coach) Paul Weir has done a great job with that team, they’ve gotten so much better and a team on an eight-game winning streak played a team on a seven-game winning streak – it was the kind of game I thought we would see, right down to the end.”
New Mexico closed the regular season on a five-game win streak before beating Wyoming by 10 and Utah State by 15 en route to the championship game.
There were 11 lead changes and six ties in a game that saw the Aztecs improve to 15-5 at the Thomas and Mack Center over the past four seasons.
Since losing six of eight in January and February, San Diego State is riding a nine-game win streak into the Big Dance, its longest since winning 11 in a row during the 2015 season. During the nine-game win streak, the Aztecs are winning by an average margin of 13.3.
“We were just tired of losing,” Watson said. “We knew we had too much potential to be losing games like that. And mentally from then to now, I feel like we’re on a whole new level.”
After San Diego State opened the second half by hitting 5 of 6 and 8 of 13, the Lobos found a rhythm and connected on 5 of 7, and used a 21-10 run to take a 63-57 lead with 7:35 left in the game.
Playing in a record 10th Mountain West tournament championship game, the Aztecs weren’t ready to concede.
Kell hit a pair of free throws, Jeremy Hemsley buried his first bucket of the game – a 3-pointer – and reserve Max Montana completed a four-point play after being fouled on his trey, igniting a 15-2 run. Suddenly, San Diego State was back in front, 72-65 with 3:57 remaining.
Ranked fifth in the nation in 3-pointers made per game (11.1), New Mexico was 8 of 24 from beyond the arc. But while San Diego State was making its big push, the Lobos missed their final seven from long-range.
“They were fortunate enough to make a couple of shots and get on a run,” said a stoic Antino Jackson, who led five players in double figures with 17 points. “And we didn’t make shots.”
The Lobos (19-15) also got contributions from Anthony Mathis, who had 13, Joe Furstinger with 12 and Troy Simons and Sam Logwood, who each had 11.
“They deserve to win the championship, and they did,” said New Mexico coach Paul Weir, also in his first year with the program. “Unfortunately for me and for us, that means the end of an amazing run with a tremendous group of young men that I’ll never forget. I wish I could give them a different ending because they worked so hard and they gave so much and you always – like your kids – want to reward them for things like that Unfortunately I couldn’t reward them tonight. And you have to give San Diego State credit for that.”
New Mexico: Junior Anthony Mathis, who ranks third in the nation in 3-point field-goal percentage with a 49.5 clip from long range, and ranks third all-time on the school’s single-season list for 3-pointers made with 98, was 2 of 7 from long range.
San Diego State: The Aztecs overcame their postseason woes against New Mexico, which came into the game sporting a 4-1 mark against San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament and 2-1 when the teams met as members in the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
New Mexico: Will hope to get a call from a lower-tier postseason tournament.
San Diego State: Will play in the NCAA Tournament.