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MWC landscape altered by last week’s upsets

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Just like that, the Mountain West Conference race has tightened up considerably.

A week ago, it appeared that San Diego State, UNLV, Air Force and BYU had separated themselves from the rest of the league. But the outlook altered Saturday, when the first-place and second-place teams, SDSU and UNLV, lost.

Meanwhile, a couple of teams from the lower half of the standings are on the rise.

Utah (5-6), which lost five straight games in January, recorded a 19-point victory over BYU (7-4) on Wednesday. Then, on Saturday, the Utes traveled to first-place San Diego State (9-2) and knocked off the Aztecs. Utah beat the two hottest teams in the league — snapping the Cougars' four-game winning streak and ending SDSU's eight-game winning streak.

SDSU coach Steve Fisher has noticed a difference in the way the Utes, who have won three of their last four games, are playing right now. "A huge key for them," he said, "is confidence."

Fisher said the Utes have a number of talented young players on their roster, including freshman center Luke Nevill. He added that Bryant Markson is one of the top seniors in the league.

Utah coach Ray Giacoletti agrees that confidence has been a factor in his team's resurgence. With four new players in the starting lineup this season, the Utes have experienced growing pains. "People just expect so much so quickly from all of us," he said. "It takes time."

Utah, which finds itself in a sixth-place tie with Wyoming, has a chance to make a move in the standings this week when it hosts last-place Colorado State (1-9) on Wednesday and third-place Air Force (7-4) on Saturday.

Hours after SDSU fell to Utah, second-place UNLV (7-3) lost at BYU. The Rebels missed out on an opportunity to gain ground on SDSU, but they will have another chance Thursday, when they host the Aztecs.

"Our game with SDSU is a big one in the league race," said UNLV coach Lon Kruger.

Like Utah, New Mexico (6-5) is looking to make a late-season run. The Lobos have won two straight road games and have won three games in a row. They host Wyoming (5-6) on Wednesday. UNM has three of its next four games at home.

It all serves as a reminder that this year's MWC Tournament in Denver could be quite unpredictable.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS: Need another reminder? Five of the eight MWC games last week were decided by three points or less, including four outcomes determined in the final seconds.

Air Force 62, Wyoming 61: The Cowboys' Justin Williams ties the game with three seconds left but the Falcons' Jacob Burtschi hits the deciding free throw with four-tenths of a second remaining.

BYU 75, UNLV 72: Cougar Keena Young knocks down a pair of free throws with 22 seconds left, and UNLV misses a pair of 3-point attempts in the final five seconds.

New Mexico 80, CSU 78: The Rams' Corey Lewis lifts his team to within a point with seven seconds left, but the Lobos make a free throw with five seconds left and hold on for the victory.

Wyoming 67, TCU 65: TCU is whistled for goaltending on a Williams putback with two-tenths of a second left to preserve a Cowboy win.

THE BATTLE FOR LAST PLACE: TCU (1-9) and Colorado State (1-9) have all but locked up spots in the play-in game at the MWC tournament, which features the No. 8 seed against the No. 9 seed. The winner of that game faces the tournament's No. 1 seed.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Utah's Bryant Markson earned player of the week honors after scoring 13 points and grabbing six rebounds against BYU, then recording his first career double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds) against San Diego State.

NOTES: Wyoming guard Brandon Ewing needs only 11 points to break the record set by Utah's Andrew Bogut for scoring in league games by a freshman. Ewing has scored 182 points in MWC contests this season . . . Air Force is No. 46 in the latest CollegeRPI.com (as of Feb. 12), while San Diego State is No. 60 and BYU is No. 61. In the conference CollegeRPI.com ratings, the MWC is No. 8 . . . The home team is 32-16 through 48 conference games, but the home team is just 13-11 in the last 24 contests . . . Air Force needs one more win to become the 20th team in MWC history to record 20 victories in a season. In the history of the MWC, every team to reach 20 wins has earned a postseason invitation.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com