McGrane: Dominant Defense has Aztecs on Verge of Title

March 15, 2013

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By Mick McGrane
March 15, 2013

LAS VEGAS ---- If you're looking for drama, find a theater. San Diego State's women's basketball team doesn't dabble in it.

The Aztecs, who approach the opening 20 minutes of a game as though they were 15 minutes late for a bus, did it again on Friday, racing out to a 12-0 lead en route to a 67-39 win over New Mexico in the semifinals of the 2013 Reese's Mountain West Championship at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The victory was the 17th straight for No. 1 seed SDSU (26-5), which will defend last year's tournament title on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. PT against No. 2 seed Fresno State.

A word of advice to the Bulldogs: Don't be late.

The Aztecs, who defeated Nevada by the same score in Wednesday's quarterfinals by starting the contest with a staggering 19-0 run, have now outscored their first two tournament opponents by a combined count of 61-31 in the opening 20 minutes.

"When you start the game, you have to set the tone, the dynamic" said Aztecs senior point guard Chelsea Hopkins, the MW Player of the Year who posted her 13th double-double of the season with 14 points and matched a career-high with 14 rebounds. "That's what we live to do against every opponent. We want them to feel our presence, that we're going to set the tempo of the game and that we're going to maintain it. That's what we look to do every time we go out on the court."

As such, opponents this season have frequently resembled a fighter reeling on the ropes moments after the sound of the bell. Friday's win marked the 15th time this season that the Aztecs have limited an opponent to 60 or fewer points. SDSU held No. 5 seed New Mexico to 11 field goals, a mark that equaled the record for fewest in tournament history. The 78 points yielded by the Aztecs in the tournament represent the lowest two-game total in conference annals.

"The biggest thing we talked about before the game was not letting (SDSU) get loose early," said New Mexico coach Yvonne Sanchez. "They're notorious for doing that. They jumped on us right away. That's what championship teams do, not necessarily on offense, but with their defense. It's a very good, very daunting defense. The guard you. They defend you. They deny. When we got on our heels a little bit, then they got going in transition. We knew they were capable of it. We wanted to prevent it early and we didn't."

Consider: In their first two games of the tournament, SDSU has surrendered a paltry 15.5 points in the first half. Nevada and New Mexico were a combined 12-of-57 (21 percent) from the field in the opening 20 minutes. Nevada was held scoreless for the first 9:42, the Lobos for the first 5:17, stretches during which the Aztecs outscored the Wolf Pack and New Mexico by a combined margin of 33-3. Thus far, SDSU is allowing 10.5 fewer points than it did in MW play and 13.1 fewer overall.

"Coach (Beth) Burns always instills in us to come out and fight for we want, to come out strong and really play defensive," said senior center Malia Nahinu. "Our program is built on defense and we want to maintain that."

It's an approach that has propelled the Aztecs into their third tournament title game in four years. SDSU enters Saturday's championship game having won eight of its last nine in the tournament, its 28-point victory on Friday marking the second-largest margin of victory in MW semifinal history. The Aztecs have have beaten their last six opponents by at least 18 points, posting an average margin of victory of 25.8.

In Fresno State (23-8), SDSU will be facing the only team to which it lost during league play. The Bulldogs beat the Aztecs 80-72 at Viejas Arena in the MW opener for both teams before SDSU responded with a haymaker in the rematch, winning 74-49.

"I think for us, separation is important," Burns said. "More importantly, though, our team loves to play; it's fun to play. If we play great defense, take the ball off the backboard, then I allow them to run. If (an opponent) makes a shot, then they have to run one of my plays, so they'd rather be able to run their own. But when we take the ball off the glass, we're really good. I think that's really been the difference. We have skilled people who have the experience of playing together."

Including the experience of winning a MW tournament title.