After the SDSU win on January 8, Coach Brian Dutcher said, “In all likelihood, we’ll see them in the conference tournament. We just got game one of probably a three-game series.”
Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier, Larry Bird facing Magic Johnson, and San Diego State vs. Colorado State. The trilogy. The winner of game three in the series advances to the Mountain West championship to hang a coveted banner.
It was a grudge match. The teams made the same number of shots, three-point field goals, but the Aztecs made five more free throws. Aztecs win by five, 63-58.
This fight was not a one-man show. It was a band of Aztecs looking for their third ring in five seasons. Every Aztec scored, only one player scored in double figures.
Trey Pulliam’s basketball game ages like fine wine. As the season goes on, his game only gets better. Tonight, he made the biggest impact through his playmaking. In the first half, he scored only three but had five assists which included a sizzling pass to Nathan Mensah for an easy dunk. In the second half, he figured he needed to be a scorer. He finished the game with 11 points.
The bench was a big reason for the Aztecs’ victory. They outscored the Rams bench 27-10.
Aguek Arop was fantastic again. After battling against Orlando Robinson, the night before, he did something he is not accustomed to, playing back-to-back nights. He provided essential minutes off the bench as he played gritty defense and provided a spark offensively. With a minute to play, Nathan Mensah fouled out, and the Rams cut the game to three. Arop subbed in and found an opening to push the Aztec lead to two possessions. Arop finished with nine points.
Chad Baker-Mazara has been praised all season for his spark off the bench and high energy. His scoring might not have shown it. But in the second half, the Rams had a breakaway layup to cut the game to two possessions. Baker-Mazara looked like LeBron James flying from behind to get the chase-down block as the ball got wedged into the rim. With five minutes to play, he scored his first basket and grabbed an offensive rebound to quiet down a Rams crowd attempting to fuel a momentum run.
The offense showed efficiency. They had 16 assists on 22 field goals.
“We’re at our best when we move the ball,” Seiko said.
In the last two seasons, the Aztecs have been a part of multiple Rams showdowns that have featured a large comeback. Therefore, the nine-point halftime lead was not enough.
In the second half, the Rams would not go away. The Aztec lead stayed at single digits for the majority of the half. But every time CSU had the crowd on their side and a chance to make it a one-possession game, the Aztecs answered. Lamont Butler had a tremendous steal that led to a wide-open dunk, the team hit free throws, and they came up with defensive stops. But with a minute to play, CSU made it a one-possession game. But the Rams had no opportunity to tie or take the lead.
“We performed under pressure, and we found a way to win a really close game against a very good basketball team today,” Coach Dutcher said.
“We just stayed the course, had to defend and rebound, do the little things,” Adam Seiko said.
Through the first eight minutes, the Aztecs looked nothing like the team that played 24 hours prior.
In the quarterfinals, it took 15 minutes for the Aztecs to get to 15 points. At the second TV timeout tonight, the Aztecs hit that mark. To emphasize the hot shooting, Arop hit his third three-pointer of the season and the eighth in his entire career.
For the half, the Aztecs shot 52% from the field. They were 6-for-10 from three, two from Joshua Tomaic, and eight different players scored.
Dutcher knew that with such a short preparation, there was only so much time to scout the Rams.
“We’ll just adjust as the game goes on,” Dutcher said. “Our fundamentals are our fundamentals.”
The Rams hit their first six shots of the game to open the game with a seven-point lead. But the hot shooting against the 2nd ranked defense in the country can only continue for so long. After the coaches had a break to re-evaluate at the first TV timeout, the Aztecs went on a 13-1 run, which included forcing a five-minute field goal drought to the Rams.
Following the hot start, the Rams ended the half shooting 28% from the field. They also had eight turnovers.
In the CSU vs. SDSU matchups this season, the Aztecs have dominated the battle of the boards. They pulled down a combined 29 more rebounds in the first two contests. Tonight, the Aztecs grabbed impactful offensive rebounds. Nathan Mensah grabbed the first on a missed free-throw, then passed out to an open Matt Bradley three-pointer. Keshad Johnson was a menace on the glass. He finished with three offensive rebounds. For the game, they won the battle 32-24 with five more offensive rebounds.
“We want to attack the offensive glass,” Dutcher said. “They’re called easy baskets, but there’s nothing easy about it.”
The Aztecs are winning without Matt Bradley.
“I think for a while everybody was wondering could the Aztecs win if Matt Bradley didn’t score 30 points,” Dutcher said. “We won two games where the defense has taken Matt away, and other guys have stepped up and made important plays.”
Yesterday, Bradley had seven points on only two made shots. Tonight, he scored five points on two field goals. But his biggest shot of the game was a fadeaway jumper with under two minutes left as the shot clock expired to extend the Aztec lead. He stayed locked in defensively, making game-changing charges. But Bradley picked up four fouls, and Dutcher opted not to use him for a chunk of the second half.
“He understands that sometimes it’s good for him to be a decoy out there,” Seiko said.
Dutcher has now been to five straight Mountain West title games in his five seasons of head coaching. Tomorrow he will look to win his third championship.
“We prepare the best in the country,” Seiko said. “Credit to our guys, everybody is selfless. No one has an ego on this team. We all come to practice with the same mindset, the same goal.”
The Mountain West player of the year, David Roddy, is the leader of this Rams team. He was locked in at the opening tip. He attacked the Defensive player of the year, Nathan Mensah, on his first three possessions, hitting jumpers and driving to the rim. His presence was always felt. He finished the game with 22 points and nine rebounds.
“It looked like Roddy was going to make every shot he took at the start of the game,” Dutcher said.
The Rams are also led by Isaiah Stevens, who is one of the best guards in the conference. He matched Roddy offensively. He hit a clutch three-pointer with sixteen seconds left to cut the Aztec lead to two. He finished with 21 points.
Colorado State came into the game as the 13th best free-throw shooting team in the nation. They struggled tonight, which was a difference-maker. They went 8-for-16 from the line.
The Aztecs will now look to get their revenge on the Broncos in the championship game. Boise State was dominant against Wyoming, but in typical Mountain West fashion, it was eventful late in the game. SDSU has lost both meetings this year by a combined six points. The first loss was the opening game after a two-week COVID pause. The second loss was from a last-second free throw from Abu Kigab.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to hang banners, but we have new guys in the program that never hung one, so I said let’s win it for the new guys,” Dutcher said.
“I’ll let them sleep until 10 o’clock tomorrow,” Dutcher said. “We’ll prep in a ballroom, eat a pregame meal at 11, and come over and play at 3. It’ll be intense, whatever we do.”