#MWMadness: Top-seed San Diego State Slips Past No. 9 Utah State, Makes Semifinals for Ninth Straight Year
By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com
LAS VEGAS - Though San Diego State came into the 2016 Mountain West Men's Basketball Championship as the No. 1 seed, and would be facing No. 9 seed Utah State, there was never any indication it would be a mismatch.
On the contrary, despite being swept during the regular season, the Aggies played San Diego State tough at home, losing by three after erasing a double-digit deficit on Jan. 2.
Thursday in a quarterfinal matchup, it was the Aztecs needing to play catch up, as they overcame an eight-point deficit in the first half and a five-point deficit with 5:59 to go in the game to pull out a 71-65 victory, and advance to the semifinal round for the ninth straight season.
"This was what we thought it would be: hard fought, closely contested, two teams that both desperately wanted to win," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "And we were playing a team tonight in the last few games (that was) playing as well as anyone in your league. We got what we thought we were going to get."
In a game that saw five ties and seven lead changes, it was no surprise the game came down to free throws, as the Aztecs made five-of-six down the stretch to ice the win.
Ahead 66-65 with just three seconds left in the game, officials called an intentional foul on Utah State's Julion Pearre before an inbounds pass, giving the Aztecs two shots and possession. Dakarai Allen drained both free throws to put San Diego State up by three. On the next play, Utah State's Shane Rector was called for a flagrant foul on Jeremy Hemsley, after pushing him to the floor out of what appeared to be late-game frustration.
Hemsley proceeded to hit one-of-two free throws to give the Aztecs a four-point lead with 2.8 seconds remaining. They also regained possession due to the flagrant, and Hemsley once again was fouled, by Jalen Moore, and this time hit both to provide the final margin.
"We've had games just like this in our 18-game schedule and it prepares you,” Fisher said. "It prepares you for these kind of moments and we responded and found a way to be playing tomorrow. And for that we're very appreciative."
The Aztecs were led by Trey Kell, who scored 17 and grabbed five rebounds, while Malik Pope contributed with 15 points and seven boards. Winston Shepard has 12 points and eight rebounds.
The Aztecs, who also defeated Utah State by 15 in San Diego, had a solid fan base inside the Thomas and Mack Center. But Kell said there was plenty of motivation and adrenaline pumping from the raucous Utah State crowd that did its best to drain the Aztecs' momentum.
"We like when the crowds go against us, because it kind of gives us that extra boost of energy, just like a home crowd, basically," said Kell, who registered his 19th straight double-figure game in scoring. "Because we know everyone wants us to lose. But we have the confidence in yourself. So we're comfortable in any situation that we're in."
The Aggies gave their fans plenty to cheer about, as they never showed fear of the regular-season champion, playing San Diego State tough from the opening tip. Utah State started out fast and led 4-0 early before going cold and missing their next six shots and eight of nine overall. It wouldn't matter, though, as the Aztecs were also struggling from the floor, in the midst of a 2 of 9 shooting skid. Utah State's Julion Pearre's 3-pointer at 10:55 gave the Aggies a 14-9 lead.
"My approach was I was coming in, knowing my role off the bench was to come in and try to give us a lift," said Pearre, who finished with 12 points. "Coaches had faith in me, my teammates did, they found me and I was just able to knock down shots."
Jalen Moore, who had 14 points and nine rebounds for Utah State, made key plays to ignite the Aggies. Like when he challenged in the paint midway through the first half by swatting a Zylan Cheatham shot about four feet at the 9:57 mark with his team ahead 14-11. Or when he violently snatched a missed 3-point attempt by Kell with 6:39 remaining and Utah State leading 22-18. Later, with just less than four minutes left in the half, it was Pearre's swift move to the inside and a lay in between two defenders to give the Aggies a 33-27 lead that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
"I feel like this might have been one of the hardest games we've ever been in," Moore said. "Everybody played hard. Nobody wanted to lose. I felt all five guys on the court, all the guys on the court, all the coaches, felt like we could win this game throughout the game. I never had a thought in my mind we were going to lose the game."
The top-seeded Aztecs, however, had other plans.
San Diego State wasted no time out of the break, going on an 8-3 run to open up a 44-38 lead. It also hit their first four 3-point attempts of the second half.
With the game tied 61-all with 1:32 left, began taking the game over and had momentum swing back their way after Kell hit a short jumper with 48 seconds left. Nobody would score again until the 10-second mark, when the teams traded free throws leading up to the final sequence over the last three seconds.
San Diego State will face the winner of the Nevada-New Mexico matchup on Friday at 6 p.m. PT.
"We would be playing New Mexico for a third time or Nevada for a second time," Fisher said. "And whoever we play, it's going to be a game, in all probability like today, close, hard fought, make a play, get a little bit lucky and find a way to win."
Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @WillieGRamirez