Analysis: Superior depth helps San Diego State slip past Utah State 62-57 for Mountain West title
Cold-shooting Aggies’ quest to upset the No. 20 Aztecs falls short at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS — Utah State basketball fans are not going to want to hear this, but BYU basketball fans can feel their pain, after the Aggies simply ran out of gas and were downed 62-57 by San Diego State in the Mountain West championship game Friday at Thomas & Mack Center.
Twelve years ago, an outstanding BYU team that had superstar Jimmer Fredette but was without Brandon Davies experienced the incredible depth that SDSU always seems to possess. Kawhi Leonard and Billy White combined for 41 points and the Aztecs got revenge for two regular-season losses to the Cougars with a 72-54 trouncing at the same venue where SDSU again hoisted the championship trophy and cut down the nets Saturday.
“It is tough, because every possession matters in a game like this. So to have that one taken away, it is tough. There were a lot of other plays in the game that if we look back at in our heart of hearts we wish could have gone differently. But that was a little difficult to take.” — USU guard Steven Ashworth on a wiped-away 3-pointer.
The Aggies (27-6) can find solace in the fact that they were much more competitive a dozen years later, pushing No. 20 SDSU to the wire in front of a pro-Aztecs crowd in Sin City.
“They are very tough, they are very deep, they are very physical, they are just like a well-rounded bunch,” said Utah State coach Ryan Odom, heaping praise on the MW’s regular-season champion that downed USU three times this year. “They keep coming at you. They play off each other really well. Just, no weaknesses.”
San Diego State improved to 27-6 and appears to be poised for a decent NCAA Tournament run. The Aggies believe they are also headed to the Big Dance, especially after they downed another NCAA-bound team, Boise State, 72-62, in Friday’s late semifinal.
“We know we are going to be playing another game,” said Odom. “At least, we know that.”
If the Aggies are left out of March Madness, it would be a crying shame. With a NET ranking of 20, they should even be able to avoid a First-Four game in Dayton.
“I am very confident in the collective toughness this team has,” said junior guard Steven Ashworth, who reported to have gotten four and a half hours of sleep Friday night.
Clearly, the 3 p.m. (local time) tipoff favored the deeper Aztecs.
For if the Aggies have a weakness, it is their lack of depth.
Ashworth, who scored a team-high 13 points, but needed 13 shots to get there, said he didn’t believe fatigue was a factor, noting that the Aggies “fought and clawed to the bitter end,” but memories of countless shots that banged harmlessly off the front of the rim told a different story.
The Aggies had lost their legs, to this observer.
Utah State was 4 of 24 from 3-point range — with many of those shots simply short — in what was its worst shooting performance percentage-wise (17%) from deep this season. That’s the Aggies’ bread and butter, and when long-range bombs aren’t falling, Utah State is in trouble.
Of course, San Diego State’s defense certainly had something to do with that, as Odom, Ashworth and center Trevin Dorius noted several times from the podium in the postgame news conference.
“They are able to rest their guys more than most teams,” Odom said. “So when they are on the bench they get their energy back, and when they come back in, they are refreshed and ready to attack.”
Said SDSU coach Brian Dutcher: “Our depth is our strength.”
The game was played at SDSU’s pace, as USU hoped for a score in the 70s or 80s and the Aztecs, getting their wish, wanting something in the 60s.
“The theme of the game, and why they were able to change it into their favor, was just pace,” Odom said. “The pace of the game was played at their pace, more so than what we would have wanted. It started at the end of that first half. We were up, and all of a sudden they whittled it down to a one point game at halftime.”
Odom felt like losing what was once a nine-point lead in the first half was deflating for his team. The Aggies also let some bad offense affect their defensive intensity, the coach surmised.
“We weren’t very good on offense, quite honestly,” he said. “Their (defensive) pressure hurt us. Fatigue set in a little bit on us, and we just weren’t moving our bodies appropriately.”
Still, the Aggies were right there late in the game, seemingly poised to pull off a nice little upset as 3-point underdogs.
In fact, Utah State seemingly had the lead with 6:19 remaining when Taylor Funk hit a desperation 3-pointer all of Aggiedom believed beat the shot clock. But after a review by officials Dave Hall, Michael Irving and Larry Spaulding, a review that will live in infamy among USU fans, the three points were wiped off the scoreboard.
Utah State never quite recovered from the emotional blow.
Ashworth said he thought the shot should have counted, and questioned if there was indisputable video evidence to overturn the call on the court.
“It was a difficult moment, for sure. We thought it was good. I am a Nazi for the rules, and I thought because they called it good, they weren’t able to review it unless they called it a shot clock (violation) first, so I was a little confused and didn’t quite get an answer,” Ashworth said.
Shortly thereafter, Matt Bradley muscled in for a layup to give SDSU a 48-44 lead in what could be argued was the play of the game.
Three possessions later, the burly Bradley mowed over Ashworth on a drive, but was awarded free throws by Irving. And when Darrion Trammell hit a tough jumper with 3:03 left, the Aztecs had a 53-46 lead.
“It is tough, because every possession matters in a game like this,” Ashworth said. “So to have that one taken away, it is tough. There were a lot of other plays in the game that if we look back at in our heart of hearts we wish could have gone differently. But that was a little difficult to take.”
Ashworth himself missed a wide open layup in the first half; Dorius, Sean Bairstow and Dan Akin also blew point-blank opportunities. That’s understandable, as the Aggies knew of SDSU’s reputation for shot-blocking and hurried a lot of shots before they could get swatted.
“They are good, but we were fighting with them tooth and nail,” said Dorius, who finishes with 12 points on 6 of 11 shooting, and seven rebounds.
“He really made some good plays,” Odom said of his center from Heber City’s Wasatch High.
Just not enough. But not for lack of trying.
The Aggies trimmed the deficit to 53-50 with 48 seconds left on back-to-back buckets by Akin and Ashworth and were given possession after another lengthy review of an inbounds pass.
However, Funk’s triple was off the mark this time, and SDSU made nine of its last 10 free throws to seal it.
The Aztecs’ relentless pressure and pounding the ball into the paint “takes a toll on your body as well, from a fatigue standpoint,” Odom said. “Obviously they were 20 of 26 from the free-throw line, so the game was, a lot of it was won right there.”
Bradley was named tournament MVP, while USU’s Funk and Ashworth made the all-tournament team.
San Diego State and USU have met in four of the last five Mountain West title games, with each school claiming two wins each.
“I definitely think it is a rivalry, but more out of respect than animosity,” Ashworth said.