Aztecs Look to Finish Memorable Run

March 13, 2013

by Mick McGrane
GoAztecs.com

LAS VEGAS - Bulls-eyes are as much of a burden as they are a badge of honor, worn on the backs of teams whose success often spurns more than a measure of spite.

In Mountain West women's basketball, that bulls-eye belongs to San Diego State, whose dominance of the league in recent seasons has made the Aztecs considerably easier to envy than to embrace.

Top-seeded SDSU, which is bidding for its third Mountain West tournament title since 2010, enters Thursday's quarterfinal game at the Thomas & Mack Center against No. 9 seed Nevada having won consecutive MW titles and 27 of its last 30 regular-season league games.

"A year ago, we won the league and went to the tournament with a big target on our back," said MW Coach of the Year Beth Burns. "Every lower-seed team except us was upset by a higher seed. We have a veteran group that is used to having a target on them. We've faced it. We had eight league road games where we were always the biggest game for that team at home. We're used to that. I thought the good guys were supposed to wear the white hats, but now we're wearing the black hats. Everyone wants the Aztecs to lose."

Easier said than done. SDSU (24-5), which lost one league game this season, finished with the top scoring differential in the MW at 16.2 points per game. Since suffering their lone MW loss at home to Fresno State (80-72) in the league opener on Jan.9, the Aztecs have outscored opponents by a margin of 20.4 points. Of SDSU's 24 wins, 21 have been by double digits, including five of 30 or more points.

In drawing Nevada in their opening game of the tournament, a team that forged an 80-66 win over Air Force in Tuesday's play-in game, SDSU will be facing an opponent it subdued by an average of 12.5 points in the teams' two meetings this season.

Nontheless, in a league widely anticipated to receive just one NCAA Tournament bid, the Aztecs can ill afford to be blinded by success.

"I think we have to go game to game, and I don't think there could be any more pressure on us than there was all season long," said Burns, who was named the league's Coach of the Year for the third time this season. "We've been playing with that pressure night after night. I don't think it will change. We won't be any tighter or any looser. We want to win the (MW) tournament. With that said, if we can crawl in the front door, the back door or leave the garage door open, we'll get (into the NCAA Tournament) if we can, but we'd like to be cutting down the nets on Saturday night."

Recent results would suggest Burns be ready with the shears. SDSU enters tournament play having won 15 straight, an achievement that comes on the heels of a 13-game streak in 2011-12. The current streak equals that of the Aztecs' 1983-84 squad and is three shy of matching the school record established in 1995. During the 15-game streak, SDSU has limited opponents to an average of 47.5 points and 32.7 percent shooting (24.5 percent beyond the arc).

"Streaks really aren't something basketball players think about," Burns said. "To me, that part of the season is closed. We've got a three-day tournament that we have to win to go further. So it doesn't matter. I'd rather be streaking with momentum than anything else. We find ways to win and when you're in that situation where you have to get one more rebound or make a shot, we all believe one of us is going to do it. You build a trust and confidence. We have an experienced team that understands what's at stake and how we have to play."

That experience includes each of the past two MW players of the year in senior guards Chelsea Hopkins and Courtney Clements. Hopkins, who was awarded the honor a year ago, holds title to four of the eight triple-doubles recorded by a women's player since the league's inception in 1999.

Clements was tabbed this season's Player of the Year after finishing tied for second in the league in scoring (17.4 points per game) and second in free-throw percentage (.872). She tied for sixth in three-pointers made (1.9) and finished 10th in steals (1.8), 11th in three-point field-goal percentage (.366), 14th in field-goal percentage (.423) and tied for 14th in blocked shots (0.60). The sixth-leading scorer in SDSU history, Clements posted seven games with 20 or more points.

"I think you're playing off mostly adrenaline now," Hopkins said. "You know what's at stake. We know that these games are must-wins. I think when you're in any situation like that it gives you the extra focus and energy you need to perform. We've been in that situation before and we've been successful."