#MWMadness: San Diego State Returns to Familiar Place: the Championship Game

 

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By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com

 

LAS VEGAS - Playing for a conference tournament championship is becoming a regular thing for San Diego State.

The top-seeded Aztecs defeated No. 9 seed Nevada 67-55 on Friday in the semifinals of the 2016 Mountain West Men's Basketball Tournament, and is in the title game for the third-straight season and seventh time in eight years.

"Thrilled that we're playing tomorrow, and we need to come out, no matter who we play, with the same type of energy and effort and we'll have the opportunity to cut down nets again," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "Effort has never been a problem for us. We play hard. We sometimes are challenged to get the ball in the basket. Tonight we had a team that guarded. ... So shots that looked like they were going to go in didn't go in. But we found a way to get a win."

The Aztecs will play the winner of the second semifinal, between Fresno State and Colorado State, in Saturday's championship at 3 p.m. PT. San Diego State is looking for its conference record fifth Mountain West tournament title and conference-best 11th overall title (regular season and tournament).

Trey Kell led the Aztecs in scoring with 15 points, despite feeling under the weather during the first half. Kell said he went to the locker just before halftime to meet with team doctors, and eventually returned feeling better.

"I'm slowly getting better," Kell said. "I'm not to where I want to be. It's not an excuse. We still have a job to do, and we're almost there."

Winston Shepard scored 13 and grabbed seven rebounds. Dakarai Allen and Zylan Cheatham each added 11.

"We always knew Trey was tough," Allen said. "That's how our team is. Once I saw him taking the bandages off I knew it was over. It was nice to see him going out and scoring."

Staying visible in San Diego State's rearview mirror, Nevada never made a serious run at the Aztecs until a 12-2 spurt tied the game at 38 with 11:24 left. Meanwhile, the Aztecs were dealing with their own woes, after opening the second half on a 3-for-12 shooting slump and at one point going scoreless during a five-minute span.

Once the Pack tied the game, San Diego State turned the table and went on its own run, scoring five unanswered points to move ahead, 43-38 with just under 10 minutes to go. They later extended the lead to nine, 53-44, as turnovers, many of them unforced, continued to plague the Pack. By the end of the game, Nevada had committed 20 turnovers and San Diego State held a 24-5 edge in points off turnovers.

"It wasn't a one-man show, but our best guy was Dakarai (Allen)," Fisher said. "He played angles. He read shoulders. And he had four steals and none of them were just wild gambles in terms of what he did.

"That was the thought process. Make it hard for them to get it to the rim. And when you get an opportunity, live ball turnovers for any of us are deadly. That was significant for us, there's no question about it."

San Diego State continued to pepper Nevada's frontcourt with a heavy dose of dribble-drive that saw the Aztecs flourish on three consecutive field goals, all inside the final three minutes of the game.

The Wolf Pack refused to give in, as Eric Cooper's 3-pointer with 1:19 left cut the lead to six, at 59-53. A turnover gave the ball back to the Wolf Pack, but Cameron Oliver's shot caromed off the side of the rim. Shepard grabbed his sixth rebound of the game and was immediately fouled.

The Aztecs hit 8-of-10 free throws down the stretch to provide the final margin.

"We don't want to leave it in someone else's hands, so we'll have a good game tomorrow, whoever we play," said Fisher, when asked whether or not he thought his Aztecs did enough to receive an at-large bid, in the event they lose on Saturday. "We'll be excited to play and I know we'll play hard, and I know we'll play well."

Nevada was led by Oliver, who poured in 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Tyron Criswell added 14 points for the Pack.

After opening the game with a 7-5 lead, the Wolf Pack missed six of its next seven shots, spanning nearly five minutes, while San Diego State went on an 8-2 run to take 15-9 lead with 12:36 left in the half. The run extended to 17-5 over eight minutes, as the Aztecs took advantage of the Pack's futility and opened up a 22-12 lead. At the other end, Nevada missed 11 of 13 during San Diego State's run, which eventually saw the Aztecs lead by 13 late in the half.

The Wolf Pack shot just 8-of-26 (30 percent) in the first half, including 1-of -5 from long-range, while San Diego State hit 12-of-32 (37 percent) and 3-of-10 from behind the 3-point line. So while the Aztecs didn't do much better than Nevada, shooting-wise, their bench outscored the Pack's, 13-4, which was nearly the difference at the break. San Diego State led by 10 at halftime.

"I think that tonight was indicative from an effort standpoint of how we've played all year," Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. "We played excellent defense tonight, lack of shooting. And tonight uncharacteristically we turned the ball over too much to beat a championship caliber team like San Diego State."

 

Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @WillieGRamirez