Utah State and fifth-ranked San Diego State will face off Saturday in the championship round of the Mountain West Conference tournament, a rematch of last year’s title game at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
Top-seeded San Diego State (30-1) rallied from down 16 points in the first half Friday, then controlled the second half en route to an 81-68 win over fifth-seeded Boise State in the first semifinal.
In the second semifinal, second-seeded Utah State (25-8) held off 11th-seeded Wyoming 89-82.
The Aztecs won their first 26 games of the season, setting program records for the best start and longest winning streak in school history.
However, a 66-63 loss to UNLV on Feb. 22 began a run over San Diego State’s final three regular-season games in which the Aztecs played from behind. They rallied from a second-half deficit on Feb. 25 to beat Colorado State, then bridged a double-digit gap in the Feb. 29 finale at Nevada.
Ninth-seeded Air Force continued the trend on Thursday, leading by eight points early in the second half before San Diego State rallied. The Aztecs overtook the Broncos earlier on Friday.
“The 19-3 run in the first half was a big momentum boost for us,” San Diego State guard KJ Feagin said after hitting five 3-pointers and scoring 21 points vs. Boise State. “After we tied it at halftime, you guys saw how pumped up we were at halftime, and I knew that we weren’t going to lose after that. So we got into halftime, we made our adjustments, and we were ready to go out and just unleash after that.”
Saturday marks the Aztecs’ third consecutive Mountain West tournament championship appearance and fifth in the past six seasons. However, their only title in that span came in 2018.
San Diego State is pursuing its sixth Mountain West tournament crown. The Aztecs’ title total tops all teams since the event’s inception in 2000.
Utah State, meanwhile, is the event’s reigning champion, having beaten San Diego State 64-57 in the final last year.
The Aggies were overwhelming preseason favorites to repeat atop the Mountain West. While they fell short of another regular-season crown, they are one victory from claiming another tourney championship.
Sam Merrill — the preseason Mountain West Player of the Year and the team’s leading scorer on the year — paced Utah State with 27 points on Friday. Likewise, San Diego State’s season-long leading scorer, Malachi Flynn, topped the Aztecs with 22 points in their semifinal victory.
The backcourt duel between Merrill and Flynn could shape Saturday’s championship, though San Diego State must account for Utah State post presence Neemias Queta. He scored 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting from the floor in Friday’s win.
Queta faced a number of injuries in the early portion of the season. He posted a 15-point, 14-rebound double-double in Utah State’s first matchup with San Diego State, a 77-68 Aztecs win on Jan. 4, but managed just eight points and six rebounds in the return matchup on Feb. 1.
In the month since that game, Queta has four 20-plus-point performances, including Friday’s.
For San Diego State, the star in its last meeting with Utah State was Matt Mitchell. His 28 points ignited a second-half rally in the Aztecs’ 80-68 win.
“They have it all. They have playmaking at every spot, and they’re phenomenal defensively,” Utah State coach Craig Smith said of San Diego State in his CBS Sports Network postgame interview on Friday. “We’re going to have to play very good basketball, but we’ve been there, we’ve done that, we know what to expect.”
–Field Level Media