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‘Pretty magic’: BYU-SDSU rivalry adds another epic chapter. What does upset win over No. 18 Aztecs mean for the Cougars?

A decade ago, the Cougars and Aztecs staged legendary showdowns as top-10 teams when Jimmer Fredette and Kawhi Leonard starred for their respective programs.

BYU players celebrate a three-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against San Diego State, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, in San Diego.
Dennis Poroy, Associated Press

BYU and San Diego State authored another memorable chapter in their longstanding basketball rivalry Friday.

The Cougars watched the No. 18 Aztecs rally from a 17-point second-half deficit to tie the game with 1:56 remaining, but BYU staged an 11-1 run to close out a stunning 72-62 victory at an empty Viejas Arena Friday.

“This is a huge win for us,” said senior guard Brandon Averette, who buried a big 3-pointer with 52 seconds remaining. “We did a great job of protecting the ball and playing together on both ends of the floor.”

“I feel like, and all these guys in the locker room feel like, we’re the better team,” said San Diego State senior Matt Mitchell, who scored a career-high 35 points. “We should have won, but BYU earned their win.”

Last season, SDSU came back in the second half to beat BYU at the Marriott Center, 76-71. These two programs, former Western Athletic Conference and Mountain West Conference rivals, are scheduled to play again next season at the Marriott Center.

Though they no longer belong in the same conference, the Cougars and Aztecs should play every season. A decade ago, BYU and SDSU had some legendary showdowns as top-10 teams when Jimmer Fredette and Kawhi Leonard starred for their respective programs. The all-time series between the two schools dates back to 1940. The Cougars own a 49-26 lead.

“This rivalry is so fun. Coach (Dave) Rose’s experience in this rivalry took it to epic proportions,” said BYU coach Mark Pope. “We had a really epic game last season where they squeezed it out at the end by making some big shots, and then we get this game in here.

“There’s something about BYU-San Diego State basketball that’s pretty magic, and it’s been that way for a long time. The fact that these young men get to take part in it, it’s pretty awesome.”

Friday’s win marked the Cougars’ first non-conference regular season victory against a ranked opponent since they beat No. 6 Louisville in 2007. It was also BYU’s first win over SDSU since 2011, snapping a four-game losing streak against the Aztecs.

Before Friday’s game, SDSU had won 35 of 37 games since the start of the 2019-20 season.

For BYU (7-2), this upset was significant for its NCAA Tournament resume. When the Cougars lost 74-70 at home to Boise State on Dec. 9, their Big Dance hopes looked somewhat bleak, as they sat at No. 92 in kenpom.com’s rankings heading into the rivalry game against Utah on Dec. 12.

But after a 82-64 win over the Utes and Friday’s dramatic triumph, the Cougars have jumped to No. 70. Those victories have certainly given BYU some added confidence moving forward.

What has propelled the Cougars since that disappointing setback to Boise State?

“This is probably the most competitive team I’ve been on. I’ve seen that back when we were doing two-a-days,” Averette said. “Every single day was just a battle. I think the way we compete and battle through whatever comes at us, that’s the biggest thing about this team.”

Not only did Averette scored 10 points and hit that late 3, he also recorded a blocked shot against SDSU.

“I just went up to contest it,” he said. “I think it was the first block of my college career.”

BYU has come a long way since it fell to USC 79-53 on Dec. 1. The Cougars were out-rebounded by the Trojans 50-35 and they were out-rebounded by Boise State 33-30. Against San Diego State, one of the nation’s top rebounding teams, BYU won that battle 40-26, including 14-11 on the offensive boards.

“That’s the game right there. Before the game, we preached ‘Rebound, rebound, rebound,’” Averette said. “That was the biggest key in our scouting report. I’m glad we went out there and executed it.”

The Cougars return to action with a home game against Texas Southern Monday night. They conclude their non-conference schedule Wednesday with a contest against in-state foe Weber State at Vivint Arena.

BYU tips off West Coast Conference play Dec. 31 at Pepperdine.