Utah St.-San Diego St. Preview
SAN DIEGO (AP) – San Diego State ended the regular season with a nine-point win at UNLV and a thrilling rally at home against New Mexico that gave it the outright Mountain West Conference title.
Now the eighth-ranked Aztecs have to win three games in three days to claim the conference tournament title, which is why coach Steve Fisher doesn’t think their trip to Las Vegas this week will be anticlimactic.
”Hopefully we’ll be more motivated to be greedy and get two championships in the span of a week,” Fisher said Tuesday, one day after being named MWC coach of the year.
The Aztecs (27-3) are still on an emotional high after rallying from a 16-point deficit to beat New Mexico 51-48 on Saturday night. The biggest comeback since Fisher took over at SDSU in the 1999-2000 season gave the Aztecs the No. 1 tournament seed and a bye into Thursday’s quarterfinals against No. 8 seed Utah State (18-13).
Barring any upsets, the Aztecs will have to beat No. 4 seed UNLV and 20th-ranked New Mexico again in order to win the tournament.
”Obviously, if we don’t win it will be a little bit of a downer,” Fisher said. ”I think you have to have another challenge and motivation, and that’s something to look forward to also. That was part of our thought of the day yesterday: Congratulations, now it’s the next opportunity, next challenge.”
SDSU last won the conference tournament in 2010-11. It was eliminated in each of the last two seasons by New Mexico, including in the title game two seasons ago.
On Saturday night, the Aztecs trailed 41-25 with 12:05 left when Fisher took assistant coach Justin Hutson’s suggestion that they switch from man-to-man defense to a 1-3-1 zone.
That switch completely neutralized the Lobos’ big men and launched SDSU on a 19-1 run.
Fisher doubts the Aztecs would use zone for 19 straight possessions like they did against New Mexico, but they’ll be quicker to switch to it if needed.
”I think teams will spend a little time on what they’ll do against the zone, so that’s probably good for us, too, where they have to take some practice time to use on that,” Fisher said. ”I really don’t know how much we’ll use it in the tournament. We may do it a lot, we may not do it at all. We’ll see what happens."
A month earlier, SDSU rallied from 14 down at Boise State to win 67-65.
To the Aztecs, there’s really not a point of no return if they get down, even by double digits. That’s because they rank second in the nation with 57.2 points allowed per game.
”It’s not that big of a deal,” said forward Josh Davis, the conference newcomer of the year. ”We just know we have to kick it up another gear. We play every possession as hard as we can, no matter what the score is. Defense is one of our biggest staples so no matter what happens, we just play as hard as we can.”
San Diego State showed Utah State its suffocating defensive play in winning both meetings this season. The Aztecs held the Aggies to an average of 57.0 points, 13.2 below their season mark.
Senior guard Xavier Thames, who was named conference player of the year and leads the Aztecs with 16.9 points per game, scored a career-high 31 in a five-point overtime win at Utah State on Jan. 25. San Diego State held Aggies leading scorer Jarred Shaw (14.2) to 14 total points on 37.5 percent shooting.
Utah State advanced to the quarterfinals with a thrilling 73-69 win over No. 9 seed Colorado State on Wednesday, rallying from nine down with 1:35 left. Senior guard Preston Medlin led the way with 17 points as the Aggies won their third in a row while tying a season high with 11 3-pointers made.
They are second in the nation with a 41.2 shooting percentage from beyond the arc and hit 14 of 31 this season against SDSU, which allows opponents to shoot just 28.8 percent from long range.