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Utah State basketball: Sluggish Aggies fall flat in Mountain West title game, now hope for an at-large bid to the Big Dance

San Diego State nearly leads wire-to-wire in Las Vegas, takes a 68-57 win to get the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament; USU now awaits Selection Sunday, is squarely on the bubble

SHARE Utah State basketball: Sluggish Aggies fall flat in Mountain West title game, now hope for an at-large bid to the Big Dance

San Diego State Aztecs forward Keshad Johnson (0) blocks blocks Utah State Aggies center Neemias Queta (23) at the rim as Utah State and San Diego State play in the championship game of the Mountain West Tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 13, 2021. San Diego State won 68-57.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

LAS VEGAS — Less than 20 hours after knocking off Colorado State to advance to the Mountain West Conference tournament championship game, the Utah State Aggies were back on the court at Thomas & Mack Center, taking on nationally ranked San Diego State on Saturday afternoon.

The top-seeded Aztecs handled that quick turnaround a bit better, taking a 68-57 win over second-seeded USU to thwart the Aggies’ bid to win a third-straight conference tournament title in a league that USU coach Craig Smith said “is really, really good.”

But while those 20 hours went by quickly for USU, the next 20 or so almost certainly won’t. Utah State (20-8) is now squarely on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, especially after a couple so-called “bid-stealers” broke through Saturday and won their respective conference tournaments to get an automatic bid to the Big Dance.

“We had a lot of catastrophic turnovers. Against San Diego State, you gotta really take care of the ball.” — Utah State center Neemias Queta

“It’s like we told our players, everything is out of our control now, right?” said USU coach Craig Smith, who lightly lobbied for a bid by describing the Aggies’ “incredibly difficult” season that started with a 1-3 record. “We did everything we possibly could in one of the hardest seasons you could possibly imagine, for obvious reasons, with COVID and all.”

Those early losses — to Virginia Commonwealth, South Dakota State at a neutral site and to BYU in Logan — loom really large right now as the Aggies’ schedule is scrutinized by the Selection Committee in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Utah State entered the day with a NET ranking of 37, having moved up from No. 41 after Friday’s win over Colorado State that probably eliminated the Rams. Now the Aggies are one of the bubbliest teams in the land.

“We’ve been on the bubble for three straight years,” Smith said. “For us, every game makes a difference.”

In Saturday’s matinee, which tipped off at 3 p.m. local time, the difference was the little things. 

“It was a battle and San Diego State played better than us, for the most part,” said USU star Neemias Queta.

The Aztecs (23-4) are now 53-6 the past two seasons and lead the series 14-8 with Utah State.

“We’ve had some epic battles,” Smith said.

This one wasn’t that memorable. San Diego State almost led wire to wire and simply had more energy when it was needed the most, although Smith and Queta refused to use the quick turnaround — SDSU defeated Nevada in Friday’s first semifinal before USU defeated CSU — as an excuse.

“At the end of the day, they made a few more plays than we did,” Smith said.

The Aggies, who beat SDSU twice in Logan in January in a three-day span, just couldn’t get over the hump; Every time there was a flicker of hope in the second half for a USU run, the Aztecs squashed it with a timely jumper or drive to the hoop.

For instance, Queta scored inside with 4:49 left to cut the deficit to 58-52, but Nathan Mensah got free inside for an easy basket.

Justin Bean made a couple of free throws with 3:13 left, and Marco Anthony came up with a steal to give the ball back to the Aggies, trailing by just four. Then came the killer — SDSU’s Trey Pulliam came up with a huge steal and fast-break bucket.

“We had a lot of catastrophic turnovers,” Queta said. “Against San Diego State, you gotta really take care of the ball.”

Rinse, lather, repeat.

Queta, who was so dominant in Friday’s semifinal win over Colorado State with a near-triple double, disappeared down the stretch, for whatever reason. USU’s best player still finished with 18 points, six rebounds and three blocks, but didn’t score after the aforementioned basket with just under five minutes remaining.

SDSU pushed a 28-24 halftime lead to double digits with a 6-0 run to start the second half, and that was pretty much the difference. USU got no closer than six.

The Aggies were solid in almost every facet — except taking care of the ball. They finished with 16 turnovers, which SDSU turned into 14 points.

“It was a four-point game at halftime,” Smith said. “We felt good about it.”

Billed as the deeper team, with no superstars but 7-8 players capable of going off at any time, SDSU lived up to its reputation. Tournament MVP Matt Mitchell led the Aztecs with 14 points, while Pulliam and Mensah added 10 apiece and Terrell Gomez and Jordan Schakel chipped in nine each.

SDSU got 16 points from its bench, USU just eight. The Aztecs led for all but two minutes, 57 seconds. USU led for just 45 seconds.

“We over-extended some guys with the minutes,” Smith said. He had to; SDSU’s pressure was relentless.

It was a far cry from last year’s title game, played in front of a near-capacity crowd and capped when Sam Merrill nailed a 3-pointer to give USU its second straight title.

The atmosphere Saturday was like a morgue, or church worship service; About 100 people were in attendance, mostly NBA scouts to watch Queta and SDSU’s plethora of talented players, and media members.

Utah State’s best moments came with between eight and six minutes remaining in the first half. Queta scored inside, Brock Miller hit a 3-pointer and the game was tied 18-18. 

However, SDSU scored the next four points to regain the lead and never relinquished it. The Aggies were just 3 of 13 from 3-point range.

Oddly, the Aggies committed just one foul in the first half, by Bean, while SDSU was whistled for eight.

Utah State was 16 of 19 from the line, while SDSU was 14 of 17.

“It is tough to be in that locker room right now,” Smith said, shrugging off a question about whether the Aggies will accept an NIT bid if it comes to that . “… Hopefully there is more basketball to be played by the Aggies.”

And just a little bit of dancing.