With time ticking down and the odds rising against San Diego State, senior point guard Xavier Thames stepped into the spotlight again on a dramatic final night of the Mountain West Conference regular season.
The 10th-ranked Aztecs, down 16 points with 12 minutes remaining Saturday, followed Thames’ lead to a 51-48 victory over New Mexico that determined the conference title. The game also might have decided a debate.
Whether he wants it or not, Thames put himself in the favorite’s role in a two-man race to be the league’s Player of the Year. He was not lobbying for the popular vote, however.
“I don’t want to get any Player of the Year stuff because I don’t care about that,” Thames said. “As long as we won the conference, and that’s what we did with my teammates, that’s all I care about.”
The other candidate is Lobos senior forward Cameron Bairstow, who had made a slightly stronger statistical case entering the showdown in San Diego. But in a potential winner-take-all scenario, the voting figured to swing the way of the player whose team won the title.
Thames finished with 23 points and five steals, while Bairstow recorded 20 points and seven rebounds.
San Diego State (27-3, 16-2) is the No. 1 seed in the Mountain West tournament and one of five teams with a first-round bye.
“We have to come back at the conference tournament and try to win that,” Thames said. “It’s not going to be easy out there in Vegas.”
The games begin Wednesday at the Thomas &Mack Center, where eighth-seeded Utah State and ninth-seeded Colorado State meet for the right to face the Aztecs in Thursday’s second round.
The second-seeded Lobos (24-6, 15-3) get the winner of the Wednesday matchup between No. 7 Fresno State and No. 10 Air Force.
Boise State took the title of the most disappointing team in the league by losing its final two games and falling to the sixth seed. The Broncos will be strong favorites to advance past No. 11 San Jose State, which finished 1-17 in league play.
The Boise State-San Jose State winner faces UNR, which earned the No. 3 seed by overcoming a 17-point second-half deficit to defeat UNLV 76-72 on Saturday night in Reno.
The fourth-seeded Rebels (19-12, 10-8) open against Wyoming at 2:30 p.m. Thursday. If form holds in the bracket, UNLV would play San Diego State in Friday’s semifinal round.
At the LVH sports book, the Rebels opened at 7-2 odds to win the conference tournament and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s still all there for us. There’s a lot of basketball left to be played,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, who is expected to reinstate junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones after the two meet today.
Dejean-Jones, the team’s leading scorer, was suspended by Rice for the regular-season finale for conduct detrimental to the team. Junior forward Roscoe Smith, the team’s leading rebounder, missed the past two games while recovering from a concussion. Smith could be cleared to return to practice today.
“We were without two of our best players,” junior forward Khem Birch said. “With Bryce and Roscoe, we’ll come back better than ever.”
Birch recorded 15 points, a career-high 22 rebounds and four blocked shots in the loss to the Wolf Pack. With a school-record 118 blocks this season, Birch is expected to be named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.
The Mountain West voting panel consists of 11 coaches and 22 media members. The Las Vegas Review-Journal ballot placed Thames, Bairstow, Birch, UNR senior guard Deonte Burton and New Mexico senior guard Kendall Williams on the all-conference first team — with Thames as Player of the Year.
Thames pulled ahead down the stretch. He scored 19 points and made several key plays in the final five minutes to carry San Diego State to a 73-64 victory over the Rebels on Wednesday at the Thomas &Mack.
It’s not official, but he appears to have beat Bairstow to the wire by triggering the comeback against New Mexico.
“It’s fitting that he made play after play. We’ve seen that so often,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said of Thames. “I’ve been in some great comebacks, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in one more significant or more meaningful in my career.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.