San Diego State finally breaks through

Brandon Davies’ asbsence might not have made much difference. Not as passionate and poised as No. 7 San Diego State played in its third meeting with No. 8 BYU.

Senior Billy White put on an offensive display that was equally as impressive as his defense that helped bedevil national scoring leader Jimmer Fredette in leading the Aztecs past the top-seeded Cougars 72-54 Saturday night for the Mountain West Conference title.

White had 21 points, 12 rebounds and five steals and fellow all-tournament selection Kawhi Leonard pitched in 20 points and eight boards, then jawed with Fredette as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

Second-seeded San Diego State (32-2), whose only two losses were against the Cougars (30-4), finally figured out how to topple top-seeded BYU, which was playing its fifth game without Davies, the Cougars’ best post player, who was suspended last week for violating the school’s honor code.

Without him, the Cougars sport a smaller lineup that was no match for the longer, deeper, faster Aztecs.

”It’s a big factor. He’s a key player on that team,” White said. ”We took advantage of that and crashed the boards, just played San Diego State basketball. We knew if we just tried to contain Jimmer and tried to make everybody else shoot, we knew that we had the game.”

Without Davies, the Cougars were outscored 38-14 in the paint, and they shot just 32 percent.

”The thing with Davies is we moved on,” BYU senior Jackson Emery said. ”That was last week. We’re a different team now. We’re not going to make excuses anymore. We’re a different team. We have a lot of confidence in the guys we have. We believe we could have beaten them with these guys. We’re not going to put anything on not having Brandon.”

Despite 30 points from a late-charging Fredette, the Cougars fell to 3-2 without Davies, posing an intriguing conundrum for the NCAA selection committee, although their loss to the athletic Aztecs eliminated all hope of the No. 1 seed the Cougars envisioned two weeks ago after climbing to third in the rankings.

The Aztecs?

They will likely be a No. 2 seed, but maybe they deserve top billing. They avenged their only losses of the season Saturday and they’re 31-0 against all others.

Either way, the Aztecs, who also won last year’s conference tournament, have all the ingredients for a deep run in the NCAA tournament: a deep, experienced roster, a grizzled coach in Steve Fisher, savvy floor leadership behind D.J. Gay and star power with White, Leonard and Malcolm Thomas running up and down the floor for rim-rattling baskets and muscle tip-ins.

”We know that we’re good. How good we still don’t know,” Fisher insisted. ”But we had a thought that if we came and competed, we would have a chance to back-to-back cut down nets. That doesn’t happen often. It doesn’t happen unless you have talented players with character that will give to get.”

Fredette, who had a career-high 52 points against New Mexico on Friday night, was 10 for 25 from the floor after sinking 22 shots against the Lobos.

”They played good defense,” Fredette said. ”They’re long, they’re athletic. They caused us some problems. But at the end, you know, we just didn’t really make shots that sometimes we normally make to keep us in the game.”

When teams send three defenders at Fredette, his cohorts have to make shots, BYU coach Dave Rose said, ”especially against San Diego State, because when you turn into a driving team and you try to get to the rim, that’s where they’re terrific. They’ve got size. They’ve got length. They’ve got athleticism. They make you change your shot at the rim.”

Although they were regular season co-champs, the Cougars swept the Aztecs, winning by 13 points both times – but that was with Davies manning the middle. This time, he was watching from the end of the bench in street clothes.

Fisher insisted his strategy, however, wasn’t that much different. He said he just emphasized better play against BYU’s zone, and White came through in a big way.

”Obviously, a 6-8, 6-9 really good player no longer there affects you. But we played well. We played very good basketball at both ends,” Fisher said.

The Aztecs took a 43-31 halftime lead and outscored the Cougars 17-6 over the first 10 minutes of the second half to make it 60-37.

”I’m really impressed with San Diego State,” Rose said. ”I thought that they just played with a lot of passion, a lot of emotion. They caused us a lot of problems.”

The Cougars had one last run left in them, a 15-2 spurt led by Fredette that made it 62-52 with just under 5 minutes left. They had a chance to cut it to single digits but James Anderson, one of the seldom-used big men Cougars inserted into the lineup to counter the Aztecs’ superior size, missed a jump hook, and Leonard’s tip-in at the other end started a 10-2 San Diego State run to end the game.

Fredette was chosen the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, something Leonard insisted didn’t bother him.

”I just thought it would go to the winning team,” Leonard said. ”But, you know, he played a great tournament, so I’m not doubting him at all. I don’t know what he averaged, but he had 52 in the semifinal game. That deserved the MVP.”