Courtesy of Braidon Nourse

LAS VEGAS – For the first time in his New Mexico career, Richard Pitino has led his team to the Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship semifinals.

For his players, specifically Jaelen House, the message and motivation was clear and simple: don’t go home.

Which is the reality at this time of year. Especially for a New Mexico team on the bubble of the NCAA tournament. With a 76-66 win over No. 3 seed Boise State, a sigh of relief can be breathed for House, who led all scorers with 29 points.

The hot topic of discussion after the win was the notion of now earning a spot in the field of 68 teams. For now, the sixth-seeded Lobos may not be going home after the Mountain West tournament. And for now, they’re not going home at all.

“We had to play with a level of toughness,” House said. “I think that’s what we did tonight.”

Where the fortitude was most heavily displayed was on the glass. On the season, Boise State averages 10 more rebounds than New Mexico. Thursday night, the Broncos won the board battle by just one, but the Lobos led in that category for much of the way.

Part of the reason they didn’t end up on top of that metric was the efforts of Tyson Degenhart and O’Mar Stanley, who each hauled in 12 rebounds. Degenhart also led his team in scoring with 23 points.

The Lobos were especially keen on the offensive glass, where they accumulated 13 rebounds and tucked away 16 second-chance points.

“We rebounded extremely well. They came back, but for the most part we just battled our butts off. It was a high-level of toughness,” Pitino said. “You can’t beat Boise unless you scratch, claw, and our guys fought and got a huge, huge win. I’m very, very proud of them. They deserved it.”

After losing both regular-season matchups this year, House and his team went into the game with a chip on their shoulder – one big enough to conjure the strength and willpower to rebound the way they did.

Also, as Boise State coach Leon Rice pointed out, House was visibly motivated and confident, saying even his team banked on a House performance worthy of a semifinals bid.

House was motivated by the two tallies in the loss column to the hands of the Broncos. But most important was his confidence and belief in himself.

“I think lately I haven’t been in the best head space confidence-wise, and tonight I just went out and laid it on the line and played how I usually play,” House said. “We don’t want to go home. I felt like I owed them one. I shot terribly and I didn’t play well against them the first two games, so I just felt like I owed them one.”

What the result sets up is a potentially thrilling matchup between two of the best guards in the conference in House and No. 6 Colorado State’s Isaiah Stevens.

With some of the strain lifted with the hopes of an NCAA tournament bid likely to be fulfilled, Pitino is excited to get back to the moment. To realize the magnitude of the matchup. And possibly to sneak out with a spot in the championship game.

“That pressure should be off us a little bit, but we want to go win a championship,” Pitino said. “It’s Friday night in Las Vegas. We should be fired up to see if we can go beat Colorado State.

“They run great stuff. Stevens is one of the best players to play in this conference for a long time, so it won’t be easy. We won’t get a lot of sleep tonight, but we’ll work our butt off to put the best game plan together that we can.”