Saturday, April 13

Aztecs hold off Colorado State, reach Mountain West final for fifth straight year


Maybe it’s the sight lines. Or the red seats. Or something about the dry desert air. Or the red and black paint splashed across the tunnels and home locker room.

Whatever it is, San Diego State likes this place.

A lot.

The Aztecs did what they normally do at Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV, which is win. They win here in the regular season against the Rebels. They win here in the Mountain West Tournament in March. They’ve won here 41 times now — yes, 41 — over the last 14 seasons.

The latest victim was second-seeded Colorado State, 63-58 in a semifinal game that tipped at 9:20 p.m. Friday and didn’t have the Aztecs back at their hotel until well after midnight … with a 3 p.m. final Saturday against top-seeded Boise State, a team that swept them in the regular season.

Coach Brian Dutcher calls it the “toughest turnaround in college basketball,” playing your third game in less than three days on 15 hours’ rest. But it’s a grind they’ll gladly embrace. It means you’re in the final.

Again.

It is their fifth straight trip to the championship game, their eighth in nine years, 12th in 14. It also may inch their NCAA Tournament seeding off the 8-9 line, meaning they wouldn’t have to face a No. 1 seed in front of a partisan crowd should they win the opener.

Colorado State was projected by many leading bracketologists as a 7 seed; you could see the Selection Committee flipping them now that the Aztecs beat the Rams by 30 in January, lost by a point (on a controversial non-call at the buzzer) in February and won on a neutral floor in March.

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The most impressive part: They won Thursday and Friday without Matt Bradley remotely resembling Matt Bradley. Or at least not until 1:44 left and the game on the line.

Bradley finished with five points after dropping 26 and 27 on the Rams in the first two meetings. He had three on 1 of 6 shooting when Trey Pulliam leaned into David Roddy and tried to draw a foul on a 3-pointer but instead got no whistle and lost the ball. It bounced to Bradley, who shot a fallaway with John Tonje draped on him that went in to push the SDSU lead to seven after three straight empty possessions.

Colorado State twice got within two points. Both times the Aztecs responded, the first with a layup by Aguek Arop on Trey Pulliam’s sixth assist of the game off a screen and roll, the second on two free throws by Adam Seiko with 9.8 seconds left.

Bradley was SDSU’s seventh leading scorer, incredible as that sounds for a guy who averaged double anyone else on the team during the conference season. Pulliam (11 points) and Seiko (10) were the only players in double figures. Nathan Mensah had nine points before fouling out with 1:01 to go. Arop had nine, Lamont Butler eight and Joshua Tomaic six on a pair of first-half 3s.

Colorado State got 22 from David Roddy and 21 from Isaiah Stevens, its all-conference duo. But only six players scored, and three of them had three or fewer points.

At the first media timeout of Thursday’s quarterfinal against Fresno State, the score was 4-2. The score Friday: 14-7, Colorado State.

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The Rams were on pace to win 106-53 and shoot a perfect 45 of 45.

Roddy, the Mountain West player of the year, looked more like the national player of the year, opening the game with a fallaway jumper from the left baseline, then a step-back 3, then a drive and layup. And he did this against Mensah, the conference defensive player of the year.

The Rams finally missed a shot with 14:13 left in the half, and that seemed to give SDSU hope — or maybe it was relief — that they weren’t going 45 of 45. Less than two minutes later, the Aztecs had the lead after Arop made just his third 3-pointer of the season and only the eighth of his four-year career.

After scoring 14 points in the opening five minutes, the Rams managed just 12 over the next 15. The Aztecs pushed the margin to 10 points and led 35-26 at the half … despite having nine turnovers.

The margin grew to 11 in the second half, but Colorado State hung around by making an assortment of lean-ins, fallaways and underhanded scoops at the shot-clock buzzers, closing to six several times before the late rush that fell short.

Soon, the SDSU students who made the trip to the desert were chanting, “This is our house, this is our house.”

San Diego State's Adam Seiko celebrates during a win over Colorado State.

San Diego State’s Adam Seiko celebrates during a win over Colorado State.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego State's The Show celebrate a win against Colorado State.

San Diego State’s The Show celebrate a win against Colorado State.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego State's Matt Bradley, left and Aguek Arop defend Colorado State's David Roddy.

San Diego State’s Matt Bradley, left and Aguek Arop defend Colorado State’s David Roddy.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 11: San Diego State's Trey Pulliam, left, Keshad Johnson, Adam Seiko and Matt

San Diego State’s Trey Pulliam, left, Keshad Johnson, Adam Seiko and Matt Bradley celebrate during a win over Colorado State in the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego State cheerleaders run on the court before playing Colorado State in the semifinals of the

San Diego State cheerleaders run on the court before playing Colorado State in the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament on Friday.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego State's Joshua Tomaic celebrates a three pointer against Colorado State in the semifinals of the

San Diego State’s Joshua Tomaic celebrates a three pointer against Colorado State in the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego State's Lamont Butler stole the ball from Colorado State's Isaiah Rivera and scored in the second

San Diego State’s Lamont Butler stole the ball from Colorado State’s Isaiah Rivera and scored in the second half.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego State's Keshad Johnson prepares to shoot free throws against Colorado State.

San Diego State’s Keshad Johnson prepares to shoot free throws against Colorado State.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego State's Matt Bradley passes around Colorado State's James Moors (10).

San Diego State’s Matt Bradley passes around Colorado State’s James Moors (10).

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego State's Nathan Mensah defends Colorado State's David Roddy.

San Diego State’s Nathan Mensah defends Colorado State’s David Roddy.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego State fans celebrate as win against Colorado State in the semifinals of the Mountain West

San Diego State fans celebrate as win against Colorado State in the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament on Friday.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego State's Nathan Mensah celebrates after a win over Colorado State in the semifinals of the

San Diego State’s Nathan Mensah celebrates after a win over Colorado State in the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament on Friday in Las Vegas.

(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)



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