MWC will have hard time topping Aztecs-Lobos

I’m not saying that Friday’s New Mexico vs. San Diego State semifinal at the Thomas & Mack Center was as good as it gets in the Mountain West Conference Tournament.

Wait a minute. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

It was so good that somebody from the Mountain West should have tweeted Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt with 40 words or fewer about how if they were considering a sequel, there now exists a script.

Those on press row spent the night shooting furtive glances of astonishment to one another every time Billy White or Dairese Gary or Kawhi Leonard or Darington Hobson would do something spectacular to raise a bar, set high to begin with, to Sergey Bubka level. Remember the scene in the original “Rocky” in which fight promoter George Jergens looks over his glasses after Rocky knocks down Apollo Creed and raises an eyebrow, as if he’s about to witness something special?

Well, this wasn’t exactly like that, because this game was supposed to be good and that fight was supposed to be a mismatch. But this game was better than good. It was great.

San Diego State won 72-69, but that’s misleading, because with 7.4 seconds to play New Mexico had the ball and a chance to win.

Gary drove the length of the court, like you knew he would. But he got knocked off stride as he reached the top of the key, which you thought he might. Only Notre Dame and Missouri let great players such as Gary dribble the length of the court without somebody stepping in front of him. See Ainge, Danny. See Edney, Tyus.

The New Mexico point guard still managed to get off a decent shot. It didn’t fall. Leonard rebounded and there was a foul, and that’s too bad. Because if there was ever a game meant to be decided by one point, this was it.

After Gary missed the last shot and Leonard sank two sort of meaningless free throws with 0.7 seconds on the clock — not even Christian Laettner can sink a game-winning shot in that little time — D.J. Gay, the underappreciated San Diego State point guard who sank a mammoth 3-point shot with a minute to play, collapsed, appropriately enough, at the 3-point line. Most in the media figured it was out of exhaustion or relief or exhilaration over a job well done.

“I kind of collapsed because I got hit on that last screen. Kind of just took my back out,” Gay admitted during the postgame news conference.

I still think Jack and Helen will be able to work with it.

The most remarkable thing about this game, besides the tenacity and fever pitch at which it was contested, was that one team was probably playing for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and one was probably playing just to get into it. So if there’s ever going to be a year when the Mountain West sends four teams to the dance, the one that starts Thursday is it.

One can only hope, for the sake of the conference, that the NCAA Tournament committee has a satellite dish or a cable TV that goes up to four digits or wherever they put CBS College Sports on the dial in cities where there’s really no interest in watching Billy White and Dairese Gary and Kawhi Leonard and Darington Hobson and a bunch of others players they’ve never heard of do something spectacular on the basketball court.

“The basketball gods were with us today,” said Steve Fisher, the San Diego State coach, after refusing to offer much comment on his team’s tournament chances.

If the Aztecs don’t cut down the nets today, he might ask them to hang around until Sunday to tap on a few shoulders and whisper in a few ears.

“I told our team at halftime this is bigu2011time, highu2011level major college basketball,” Fisher said. “We played about as well as we can and we’re one point behind. That’s what they’re telling their team, that San Diego State can’t play better. But we can. We have to. And we did.”

A lot of people say Fisher would have trouble arranging X’s and O’s in a game of tic-tac-toe, never mind a chalkboard at halftime when adjustments are called for. But say this about the man: When it was time to analyze a fantastic college basketball game, he pretty much nailed it.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352.

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