The story of the year all season for the San Diego State Aztecs has been clutch defense, as well as missed free throws. Those two things were the biggest reasons why the Aztecs won the game, but almost lost it at the same time. San Diego State defeated the Utah State Aggies, 71-65 in the first quarterfinal game of the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas on Thursday afternoon.
In a game between the one seed Aztecs and the eight-seed Aggies, who defeated Wyoming yesterday to earn the right to play another day, the Aztecs came in as the clear favorite. However, just like Steve Fisher's team has seemed to do all season, San Diego State made it much more difficult than it had to be.
Aztecs Survive a Scare
Plain and simple, this game should never have been as close as it was. The Aztecs were down for the majority of the first half, and went into the intermission with a mere 36-35 lead. Playing as the number one overall seed has haunted many teams already in these first few days of conference tournaments, as many one-seeds have lost, including Valparaiso, Monmouth, and Wichita State to name a few. The Aztecs sure looked like they would join that list, but held on at the end to move onto the semifinals.
Sophomore guard Trey Kell led all Aztec scorers with 17 points on 6-14 from the field, including a go-ahead floater with under a minute to play, to go along with five boards, a pair of assists and a pair of blocked shots in 32 minutes of play, also the most minutes played by any Aztec on Thursday.
Winston Shepard added 12 points on a 4-8 clip, but left the game for a bit in the first half and wound up going to the locker room to get his ankle tended to. He came back with a few minutes left in the half and gave Coach Fisher the thumbs up, and Shepard came back into the game. After the game, the senior forward said his ankle "will be fine". Sophomore Malik Pope had 15 points on 6-11 from the field and seven boards as well. Pope's emergence as of late has been a sight for sore eyes, especially considered his slow start to the season.
"We've got another offensive weapon who can make an open shot," Fisher said. "He's also big enough to go inside and score."
Steve Fisher's team knew this would be a tough game coming in, especially with Utah State fighting for its life.
"This was what we thought it would be, hard fought, closely contested, two teams that desperately wanted to win," head coach Steve Fisher said.
Freshman Zylan Cheatham struggled to find his touch, finishing with just four points on 1-9 from the field and just two boards. If the Aztecs want to win this tournament, Zylan will have to improve, especially on the boards. Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Skylar Spencer had zero points with three boards and two dimes in just 24 minutes as he battled foul trouble in this one.
Angelo Chol added seven points off the bench for the Aztecs, with Dakarai Allen chipping in nine points with a pair of free throws with less than 6 seconds left. Freshman Jeremy Hemsley came off the bench again and finished with seven points on the afternoon.
The Aztecs fans showed up to this one, but in the second half it seemed as if the entire arena was rooting for the Aggies to pull off the upset. When the Nevada and New Mexico fans started to pile in, the cheers for the Aggies got even louder, to no surprise of coach Fisher.
"That's human nature," Fisher said. "I would, too. If I were sitting there as a neutral, I'd cheer like crazy for Utah State."
The Aztecs made 7 of 8 free throws in the final 5.8 seconds, as both teams played the foul game, to secure the victory and move on to the next round.
Utah State Comes Out Firing, Can't Hang on in the End
Utah State was hot from the field in the play-in game on Wednesday against Wyoming, and early on weren't missing any shots against the Aztecs stout defense. The Aggies hung around for the entire game, but at the end missed their last eight shots from the field to allow San Diego State to grab the victory. Utah State also went more than 6 minutes at the end of the game without hitting a single field goal, despite having the lead with five minutes to play.
Jalen Moore finished with 14 points and nine boards on just a 5-12 clip from the field. Lew Evans led all Aggies scorers with 15 points on 4-8 from the field to go with seven rebounds. Shane Rector went just 1-9 from the field, but did finish with 11 points thanks in part to going 9-13 from the charity stripe. Rector also added seven assists and four boards in the game.
"I feel like this might have been one of the hardest game we've ever been in," Jalen Moore said.
With just under two minutes to play, it looked like Utah State was going to get some free throws after Zylan Cheatham appeared to throw an elbow while going for a rebound, striking Lew Evans in the lower body. The referees went to the monitor but determined that no foul had occurred during the play. Utah State head coach Tim Duryea felt otherwise.
"I thought we would have free throws and maybe the ball, or at least free throws," Duryea said.
Malik Pope would hit a jumper on the ensuing possession to shift the game back into the Aztecs favor.
Utah State gave their all in this one against the top-seeded Aztecs, and coach Duryea stressed the importance of rebounding in order to win the game against the Aztecs. The Aggies did out-rebound the Aztecs 40-33.
"You can't ask for much more than that against that group," Duryea said.
Ironically, both the Aztecs and the Aggies finished the game just 19 of 30 from the free throw line. The main difference was the second half, when the Aztecs made 11 of 15, including 7 of 8 late, while the Aggies made 11 of 19 in the final 20 minutes of the game.
For the Aggies, their season appears to be over. An invitation to the CBI remains a possibility but looks bleak as of this moment. As for the Aztecs, they will take on the Nevada Wolfpack, who edged out New Mexico 63-62 in the following game. The Aztecs and Wolfpack will play Friday night at 6 P.M. Pacific Standard Time.