Courtesy of Braidon Nourse

LAS VEGAS – The No. 6 seed New Mexico Lobos have made history. And now they’ll have a chance to make even more.

After a 74-61 win over No. 7 Colorado State, New Mexico became the first team in Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship history to advance to the championship game after playing in the first round. With a win over No. 5 San Diego State on Saturday, the Lobos would be the first team to ever win the title having played on Wednesday.

A testament to the way the Lobos have played up to this point, sure. But more importantly, lessons learned in the latter portion of the season and the stride they’ve caught when it counts.

New Mexico coach Richard Pitino points to his team’s loss at home to Air Force at the tail end of the season as the switch which has been emphatically flipped.

“I think the Air Force game was an eye-opener for everybody. That was a devastating loss. It was disappointing,” Pitino said. “We had to do some soul-searching as a coaching staff and players. I think our guys came back, dug themselves out of a big hole we created, and credit to them.

“I think they understand if you don’t defend, if you don’t rebound, you’re not going to win in this league. This league is too good, and there’s a lot of really, really good defensive teams. I think it was a humbling moment, and credit to our guys to kind of pull themselves out of it.”

The team could sense a shift toward the end of the regular season, but after beating Air Force in the first round of the Mountain West tournament, the brakes had come off.

The Lobos have not yet won by less than 10 points, now beating two probable NCAA tournament teams in Boise State and Colorado State. But to beat the latter, they knew they’d have to come out swinging.

How’s an 11-0 start sound?

“It did a lot. We knew we were going to come out really strong, and we did just that,” freshman forward JT Toppin said. He nearly notched a double-double with 16 points and nine rebounds. “And we knew we were going to have to execute on the offensive and defensive end.”

Which they did to a T.

The Rams don’t turn the ball over much – in reality, 14 Friday night doesn’t sound like much. But the way the Lobos capitalized was the big difference. Off the 14 turnovers, they added 22 points.

Many of them were huge momentum shifters at “key times,” as CSU coach Niko Medved pointed out. Often, the Rams would be down, make a run and need that one bucket to really get a streak going. In almost every instance, the Lobos would come up with a steal.

For Lobos forward Nelly Junior Joseph, who finished the game with nine points and 12 rebounds, that lesson was learned against Boise State the night prior. Make a team uncomfortable with the ball, and you’re bound to find some success.

“The mindset was yesterday we played against Boise, and we wanted to be aggressive and stay in the lane,” Joseph said. “We just tried to bring the same mindset to today’s game as we did yesterday.

“Once (a team beats you) twice, you learn your lesson,” Joseph said, referring to the mindset from the Boise State game carrying into Friday’s semifinal.

The discomfort the Rams played with affected almost everyone for most of the game, aside from Joel Scott, who finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, both team highs.

The Lobos will play San Diego State in the championship game Saturday at 3 p.m., and the Aztecs will play in their seventh straight conference title game, their 10th in 11 seasons.

For Pitino, a huge opportunity, as it will be his first title game as a coach at New Mexico.

“Well, obviously we have a high, high level of respect for their program,” Pitino said. “The level of consistency that they have built over 30 years from coach (Steve) Fisher to coach (Brian) Dutcher and the staff. They just do a great job of being true to what they are.

“We’ve talked about toughness. Boise was certainly that. Colorado State. It’s going to be ramped up even more. You’re playing on Saturday for a championship, so I think both teams are going to compete their butts off. I know both fan bases. I was told today every flight coming from Albuquerque to here was sold out on Southwest. That’s how special our fan base is. It’s going to be a fun afternoon.”