Aztecs earn their spot in Mountain West title game

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San Diego State either showed Friday night that it’s the fifth-ranked team in the nation, deserving of a top seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, or it’s ripe to be plucked by one of the country’s disbelieving elite squads. 

The Aztecs fell behind Boise State by 16 points in the first half of a Mountain West Conference semifinal, continuing a trend that stretched to five games, but they scrambled back to tie it by halftime and then win it, 81-68. 

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SDSU guard Malachi Flynn hit a jump shot 25 seconds into the second half for a lead, at 42-40, that SDSU never relinquished. Flynn led everyone with 22 points. Fifteen 3-point baskets keyed the Aztecs’ effort, securing the program’s third 30-victory season. 

The 30-1 Aztecs will play the winner of late Friday’s second semifinal between Utah State and Wyoming in the Mountain West title game Saturday afternoon. A victory could secure SDSU’s first top seed in the NCAA Tournament, when the brackets are revealed Sunday, March 15. 

In 2010-11, SDSU finished 34-3 to cap its finest season, with Kawhi Leonard, which ended in a West Regional semifinal loss to eventual national-champion Connecticut. In ’13-14, the Aztecs ended 31-5 with another West semifinal defeat, this time to Arizona. 

That is what this Aztecs squad has in its cross-hairs, but games like Thursday’s, in which they trailed Air Force at the half, and Friday’s chaotic comeback against the Broncos had to give SDSU faithful some shivers. 

Kansas, Gonzaga, Duke and Dayton might be among the outsiders who are licking their chops to get a shot at the nation’s top team on the road and at neutral venues, where SDSU improved to 16-0 for the season. 

That these past two bouts of first-half nerves took place in Las Vegas probably worked to the Aztecs’ benefit, since Sin City is their cozy home away from Viejas Arena. 

Since the 2013-14 season, SDSU is 24-6 in Las Vegas, in preseason games at the Orleans Arena, against UNLV here inside the Thomas & Mack Center, and back in this building for the Mountain West tournament. 

SDSU had beaten Boise twice during the regular season with commanding first halves, 48-25 in San Diego, 40-26 in Idaho. Friday was much different as the Broncos took a 35-19 lead with less than six minutes left in the opening half. 

It turned on a dime, and five 3-pointers powered the Aztecs to the halftime tie. Jordan Schakel’s bomb from the left side fell through the net with 2.2 ticks remaining to knot the game. 

“They kind of came back pretty quickly,” said Broncos senior guard Alex Hobbs, who tallied a team-best 21 points. 

SDSU battled foul trouble to stretch its advantage to 60-48, with 11:22 left in the game, on a 3-point shot by Flynn from the top of the key. It took its biggest lead, at 69-55, when Matt Mitchell’s short jumper bounced around the rim and fell through the net. 

“Thanks to Aztec nation,” said Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher of the loud responses to his team’s charges at the end of both halves. “We travel better than anybody, and it makes a difference. My players showed what kind of team I have; great resolve, didn’t panic. I have good players, and they make me look like a good coach many nights.” 

As the interview session continued, so did the theme. These Aztecs might get down, but they’re never out. Not yet. Their stage, and their opponents, however, are about to increase ten-fold. 

“If you don’t have confidence, you have no chance,” said Dutcher. “And this team has great confidence.”

About the Author

Rob Miech

Veteran sportswriter Rob Miech covers soccer and does features for Gaming Today. He has written about college hoops for the Las Vegas Sun, CBS SportsLine and the Pasadena Star-News. He is the author of four books, including Sports Betting for Winners.

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