LAS VEGAS (AP)San Diego State appeared to be in trouble Saturday, trailing by 11 points in the first half. Then, the Aztecs’ defense took over.
The Aztecs held Utah State without a field goal for nearly nine minutes, changing the tenor of the game as No. 20 San Diego State rallied to win 62-57 and capture the Mountain West Tournament championship.
The Aztecs (27-6) claimed their Mountain West-record seventh tournament title, and second in three years. This also was their conference-record 15th appearance in the title game.
San Diego State clinched the conference’s bid to the NCAA Tournament, though it was never in doubt the Aztecs would be selected. What kind of seed San Diego State receives remains to be seen.
“I think we’re a four-seed, but we’ll see what it is,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “Our numbers are great. Our confidence is great.”
Utah State (26-8) also figures to be headed to the tournament when the selections are announced Sunday.
This was the fourth time in the last five years the teams have played each other in the Mountain West championship game. Utah State won the 2019 and 2020 title games, and San Diego State went home with the 2021 trophy. Boise State temporarily ended the monopoly last season by beating the Aztecs 53-52.
“I think it’s more of a rivalry of respect rather than hatred or animosity,” Utah State guard Steven Ashworth said. “I think that’s what happens when you have the two best programs in the league going at it for over five years. We take pride in what we build as an Aggie culture. Obviously, they have a great culture and history here in the Mountain West.”
Neither team shot well Saturday, with San Diego State making 33.3% of its shots compared to 37.1% for the Aggies. Utah State’s points were a season low.
“We were very fortunate to win today,” Dutcher said. “I tell the guys at the start of the year that we’re one of the few teams when the shot won’t go in, we can still find a way to win. We can hang in there and make enough plays to win the game.”
Tournament MVP Matt Bradley scored 16 points for San Diego State and Jaedon LeDee had 13 points and 10 rebounds. Half of LeDee’s rebounds came on the offensive end.
“When he gets the ball, he’s such a threat,” Bradley said. “He makes our team so much more dangerous.”
For Utah State, Ashworth scored 13 points and Trevin Dorius 12.
The Aggies were hot early, however, going on a 12-2 run in the first half to take a 26-15 lead with 6:57 left, but then went cold. They failed to make another field goal until 1:43 into the second half, but somehow didn’t fall behind during that stretch.
But the Aztecs got close, and eventually went back and forth with Utah State in the second half. San Diego State nearly put away the game by going up 53-46 with 3:03 left, but the Aggies got back to within three points with 48 seconds remaining and two points with 30.3 seconds to go.
San Diego State closed out the game at the free throw line by making 9 of 10 free throws in the final 43 seconds.
THE BIG PICTURE
Utah State: The Aggies entered the game fourth nationally in 3-point percentage at 40.1, but struggled badly against San Diego State’s long, athletic defense. Utah State made just 4 of 24 3-point attempts.
San Diego State: The Aztecs come in waves. Nine players were in the game, and each was on the floor for at least 16 minutes and eight at least 19. All nine scored and collected rebounds.
Utah State: The Aggies have a NET ranking of No. 18, so it would be quite a surprise if they aren’t selected to the NCAA Tournament.
San Diego State: A potential six seed could be coming San Diego State’s way, but the Aztecs also might have worked their way into a No. 5.
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