LAS VEGAS — Steve Alford still had the net around his neck when the lobbying began for his New Mexico Lobos.
No. 1 in the Mountain West Conference, for sure. But how about a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament?
Improbable, yes, if only because this is the Mountain West after all. But Alford made it clear Saturday he wasn't going to settle for just being a No. 2.
"We've got to be in the talks," Alford said.
In a college basketball season where parity reigns, Alford wasn't speaking out of turn. Not after his No. 15 Lobos beat UNLV 63-56 to win a conference that conceivably might get five invitations to the NCAA tournament.
"I'll put our starting five up against anybody," Alford said. "I just hope our league gets the respect it should have."
New Mexico added the conference tournament title to its regular season crown with a gritty win on UNLV's home court, fueled by the late scoring of Tony Snell, who scored 13 of his 21 points in the last eight minutes. The Lobos (29-5) lost only twice in conference play, but the final win might be the one that gets them some real attention from the NCAA selection committee.
With the No. 2 strength of schedule in the country and the No. 2 RPI, it's hard to make a case against the Lobos at least being a No. 2.
"It's just a special team," Alford said. "They have just been battling their tails off all year long."
Snell scored 13 straight points for New Mexico during a second-half run, and the No. 15 Lobos pulled away late before a frenzied crowd of 18,500 on UNLV's home court that seemed equally split between the teams.
Snell carried New Mexico down the stretch, making three 3-pointers and adding a pair of field goals as the Lobos took over in the last 8 minutes of the game to win the conference title and the rubber game of the series between the teams this season.
"I think we deserve a No. 2 or higher," Snell said.
UNLV coach Dave Rice didn't argue against that, and joined Alford in pushing for the selection committee to pick Boise State and give the Mountain West five teams in the tournament.
Oh, and make sure UNLV gets a good seed, too.
"We should have good seeds and we should all have the opportunity for success in the tournament," Rice said. "This is a tournament wide open for success."
Snell was fairly quiet until beginning his streak with a 3-pointer that put New Mexico up 49-45 with 8:11 left. Conference player of the year Kendall Williams capped it off with a turnaround dunk with 11 seconds left and posed before a delighted traveling contingent of thousands of Lobo fans.
Williams, the conference player of the year, jumped on Snell's back and stayed there as the Lobos celebrated, fitting because Snell carried the team when it was needed most.
"It definitely shows how unselfish we are," Snell said. "The player of the year was just out there moving it around."
Bryce Dejean-Jones kept UNLV in the game with a pair of late 3s, including one that drew UNLV within 56-53 with 2:18 left. But Snell came back down the court for a 3-pointer of his own, and the Lobos were never headed.
Williams added 12 points. Dejean-Jones led UNLV with 19 points, while Anthony Bennett had 15.
Bennett, UNLV's sensational freshman, scored 11 points — the entire UNLV total — before the first television timeout. But he was inconsistent after that, disappearing for long stretches and throwing up some wild 3-pointers that kept missing the mark.
UNLV (25-9) outrebounded New Mexico 41-29, but the Rebels shot only 34 percent from the field — including 9 of 31 3-pointers.
It was the second straight conference tournament title for the Lobos, who defeated San Diego State the day before to make the final. UNLV was playing on even shorter rest, after stopping Colorado State in a late night game Friday.
Williams didn't have one of his strongest games, but his backcourt mate Snell more than made up for it. After scoring eight points in the first half and going scoreless for about 12 minutes of the second, Snell scored the next 13 points for New Mexico before Williams finished it off with a pair of free throws and his dunk.
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