Richard Pitino – UNM's return to the top of MWC Caps 'Amazing Journey'

LAS VEGAS — San Diego State's unexpected run to the national championship game last spring opened the door for the Mountain West Conference to earn widespread respect.

New Mexico beating the Aztecs 68-61 in the conference championship title game at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday afternoon allowed for more national reverence. As is a record number of Mountain West schools potentially receiving bids to the NCAA Tournament. The most the Mountain West has ever had is five in 2013.

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“Obviously we're going to get six in the NCAA Tournament,” third-year New Mexico coach Richard Pitino said. “UNLV is as good as any of them, too. So it was made for TV every night. Great players, great coaches, fan bases that really care.”

“I remember coming [to New Mexico] I'm thinking, maybe this is a baby step from the Big Ten. I didn't feel that way every night. It really didn't happen. I mean, crowded houses, national television, and there were wars every night. So, I know I've improved as a coach against some of these great coaches and programs, and it's been a very long season. But it is very rewarding.”

Going into the conference tournament, the Mountain West had six teams in the top 40 in the NET rankings, and the Mountain West schools boasted a combined record of 24-7 against Pac-12 and WCC schools.

Only the Big 12 and the SEC are expected to get more offers.

New Mexico, which has the Mountain West's automatic bid and is 27-9, and San Diego State, which is 24-10 and is expected to reach the No. 4 seed in the Big Dance, are guaranteed berths.

Then there are regular season champions Utah State (27-6), Nevada (26-7), Boise State (22-10) and Colorado State (24-10). UNLV, which is 19-12, swept the Lobos and split with the Aztecs, was a No. 4 seed but likely headed to the NIT.

“It's unbelievable,” said New Mexico senior guard Jamaal Mashburn Jr., who was named to the all-tournament team after recording 21 points and four rebounds against the Aztecs.

“We've worked hard to get to this point… We've been through a lot of ups and downs this year and we've all stayed confident and we've all stayed together. And I mean it feels great, I mean it's not over yet, but it's nice to get a championship on my way out for sure.” “.

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The No. 6-ranked Lobos had to win four games in four days, the first team to accomplish that feat in the Mountain West's 25-year history. They beat Air Force 82-56, Boise State 66-56 and Colorado State 74-61 to advance to the title game.

The No. 5-ranked Aztecs edged UNLV in overtime 74-71 and Utah State 86-70.

It's New Mexico's first NCAA appearance since 2014 as the Lobos were just 6-16 three years ago. It's their first conference tournament title since winning three in a row from 2012-14, and it's the Lobos' fifth overall tournament title.

The Lobos used a 15-4 run over the final seven minutes to pull away from the Aztecs, and New Mexico senior guard Jaylen House scored a game-high 28 points, made three of seven three-point attempts, and made three steals. He was named the best player in the tournament.

San Diego State forward Jaydon Leddy led the Aztecs with 25 points and added six rebounds.

“Our guys never wavered in their confidence,” Pitino said. “They really didn't. They came into this tournament really believing they could win it. That's why I got my family together and took the risk and it's definitely paying off now. I think [New Mexico is] One of the best fan bases in college basketball. I really, really think so. They invest in this program every day, just like Kentucky, where I grew up for eight years. I don't see much difference.

“And they're loyal. When we first got here, we were 303 in network, and half the building was empty, and to convince guys like Jaylen House and Jamal Mashburn to come to your school, without ever seeing the campus, and then to be able to have these Bonus, it's just an amazing ride. Truly, I am so grateful and appreciative. “

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To reiterate this, the announced attendance for Saturday night's game was 11,112, an enthusiastic crowd that was majority New Mexico fans.

Pitino, who coached at Minnesota from 2013-2021 and took the Golden Gophers to two NCAA tournaments, was asked what his father, Rick, the coach at St. John's, would say to him after winning a Mountain West championship.

“I hope I'm very proud,” he said. “Anytime you get fired, it's tough as a young coach and you're Rick Pitino's son and everyone compares you to him and you feel a little bit of a burden. I probably wouldn't go to Naismith Hall. “Fame, like him, and that's OK. But you must have a high level of belief in yourself. I would not be able to do this career without being able to rely on my mom and dad and the support because they are always there.

“We are far from each other, but they are always there. And I am the person, the husband, the father that I try to be every day because of my father.”

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