The second-seeded Lobos, who defeated UNLV last season (63-56) in the championship round and San Diego State (68-59) the year prior, has won this event a total of three times in four opportunities, losing only to former member BYU back in 2001 by a score of 69-65.
The team enters the tourney following a painful loss to San Diego State on Saturday night (51-48) in a meeting that decided the regular-season champion. The setback snapped a six-game slide for the Lobos, and yet they actually moved up one spot in the AP top-25 after losing a 16-point lead in the second half versus the Aztecs on the road.
As for the seventh-seeded Bulldogs, they were pitted against Air Force in the opening round of the tournament on Wednesday and needed a late burst in order to capture the narrow 61-59 victory versus the 10th-seeded Falcons. For Fresno State, one of many teams to have defected from the Western Athletic Conference in recent years, the win was the second straight and fourth in the last five outings.
The last time these teams met was in the middle of January when the Bulldogs were just 1-4 in conference play, on their way to a fifth league setback as they bowed at home, 89-79. With the victory the Lobos moved to 11-7 in the all-time series and are a perfect 3-0 in MWC action versus FSU.
The survivor of this meeting will go up against the winner of the Boise State/Nevada contest in the semifinals on Friday for the right to play for the championship and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament on Saturday.
Trailing by 15 points (56-41), with under six minutes remaining in regulation, it appeared likely that the Bulldogs would again be one-and-done in this tournament on Wednesday. However, Fresno State put together a massive 18-0 run down the stretch and used a pair of free throws by Alex Davis with 12 seconds remaining to snap a 59-59 tie in order to advance. Davis shot only 2-of-9 from the floor in the meeting, but was a perfect 8-of-8 at the stripe as he finished with 12 points. Tyler Johnson logged a double-double with 19 points and 14 rebounds, followed by Allen Huddleston off the bench with 15 points as the team survived 5-of-19 shooting from behind the 3-point line and 33.3 percent from the field overall.
Although he lost out on MWC Player of the Year voting to San Diego State's Xavier Thames, now maybe UNM's Cameron Bairstow will play with a bit of a chip on his shoulder moving forward. Then again Bairstow, who along with Kendall Williams both carved out a spot on the All-MWC First Team, doesn't need any added incentive to do his job. A year ago the Lobos posted a combined 16 20- point scoring games by individuals, this time around Bairstow eclipsed that mark all by himself with 19 such efforts as he paced the program in scoring overall with 20.3 ppg. The big man was also responsible for 7.2 rpg, second only to Alex Kirk (13.7 ppg) who cleared 8.7 rpg overall. Williams thrived with some of the pressure taken off, putting up 16.4 ppg and handing out 149 assists, against just 61 turnovers.