EL PASO — Late Saturday afternoon, the 18 championship banners hanging above the court at the Special Events Center at the University of Texas El Paso took on new significance for the San Diego State players who hoisted Coach Smokey Gaines off the floor.
In the past, the banners had been an annoyance. A reminder of what the Aztecs weren't. Now, they were a symbol of what the Aztecs had just accomplished.
By winning the Western Athletic Conference Tournament with an 87-81 victory over UTEP, the Aztecs beat a tradition as well as the conference's regular-season champion.
Playing in front of a partisan sellout crowd of 11,728 that resembled a sea of orange, the Aztecs qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first since 1976, when they represented the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn.
A WAC spokesman said there is an 80% chance the Aztecs will play in Salt Lake City on Thursday. The winner of the WAC Tournament automatically goes to the Western Regionals, which are being played in Salt Lake City and Albuquerque this year.
For UTEP, it's a matter of waiting for the phone to ring. UTEP hopes to get an at-large bid when the tournament pairings and sites are announced this afternoon.
"I think the selection committee will look at the fact that UTEP has won three straight championships," WAC Commissioner Joe Kearney said.
The Aztecs (23-7) don't have that kind of history to fall back on, and that made Saturday's game that much more important for them.
Coming into Saturday's game, the Aztecs hadn't beaten the Miners (21-9) in seven attempts in El Paso. They beat UTEP in San Diego, 76-63 on Feb. 14.
The Aztecs broke their Special Events Center jinx with a convincing 98-84 win over New Mexico in the semifinals on Friday night.
In Friday's second semifinal, the Miners had to struggle to defeat Utah, 82-73, in overtime. While the Aztecs were relaxing in their hotel rooms, the Miners were racing up and down the court.
If being more rested gave the Aztecs an advantage, it didn't become apparent until late in the second half of Saturday's game.
SDSU trailed by as many as 10 points (25-15) in the first half, and were behind, 43-39, at halftime.
Trailing 63-59, the Aztecs made their championship run.
Led by center Leonard Allen, who scored 17 of his 18 points in the second half, the Aztecs outscored the Miners 12-3.
Allen, who sat on the bench for 14 minutes of the first half with two fouls, was unstoppable. Mixing hook shots with turnaround jumpers and power layups, the 6-foot 11-inch senior scored 11 points during the Aztecs' run.
"We started to break down when they began picking up," said a tired Miner center Dave Fietl, who scored a game-high 24 points.
After Allen's streak, it became a foul shooting contest. Thanks to guard Jeff Konek, the Aztecs also won that.
In the final 1:10, Konek hit five of seven foul shots to enable the Aztecs to fend off a desperate last-minute Miner rally.
Actually, it was a rebound off one of Konek's misses that silenced the crowd and sealed the win for the Aztecs. Forward Michael Kennedy grabbed a rebound and hit a short turnaround jump shot to make it 80-73 with 1:07 to play.
"Throughout the game," Kennedy said, "I had it in my mind to crash the boards and don't foul."
What the Aztecs had in their minds and what they did on the floor did not jell early in the game.
Yet, they hung in there.
Like a boxer who takes his opponent's best punch, and comes back for more, the Aztecs never stopped jabbing.
"I had to go with a makeshift lineup throughout much of the first half," Gaines said, "and I felt very fortunate to be down just four points at halftime."
In the first half, with the Aztec offense sputtering against the Miners' aggressive 2-3 zone defense, Watson took it upon himself to be even more offensive minded than usual.
"I felt we were sluggish," Watson said, "and I tried to do a little extra."
He succeeded. Watson scored 16 of his team-high 20 points in the first half. Luster Goodwin, Watson's counterpart in the backcourt, led the Miners with 13 first half points. He finished with 22.
If Watson was the Aztecs' Mr. Outside, Kennedy was Mr. Inside and forward John Martens was Mr. Dependable.
After being benched early in the game because he missed a couple of poor shots and did not block out, Kennedy was a different player when he returned. He finished with 19 points and a game-high 14 rebounds.
"I was real nervous at the start," Kennedy said. "Smokey cussed me out. I calmed down, and took care of business."
That's exactly what Martens did for the 32 minutes he was out on the floor. Playing his second excellent game in two days, Martens kept the offense moving, the defense solid, and he chipped in with 9 points and 11 rebounds.
It was another team effort for a group of players who felt they had to vindicate themselves after losing their final two regular season games.
"This is a milestone for us," Gaines said.
Because there haven't been a lot of milestones during Gaines' six-year tenure, the Aztecs are not experienced at dealing with them. Therefore, it's understandable that the players forgot to cut down the nets after what was probably the biggest win in the school's history.
As the team was rushing to catch a bus that would take them to the airport, Gaines called out, "Wait, let's tear down those nets."