Las Vegas, Nevada
Every part of the Mountain West Tournament reflects the year the United States and most of the world has gone through. From the lack of fans to the temperature checks upon entry, reminders are everywhere of the time we live in currently. There are also signs of hope.
Eleven teams from seven states have descended on Las Vegas, hoping to capture the Mountain West Conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, with the SDSU Aztecs kicking it off on Thursday. Modeling for the rest of society how careful following Covid protocols can help curb the spread of the virus, the schools gathered have provided a welcome respite for their fans.
San Diego State began the first leg of its journey Thursday in a quarterfinals matchup against Wyoming. The Cowboys, meanwhile, entered the contest, having already won a game in this season’s tournament.
It was the third meeting between the schools. Neither of the first two games was particularly close as SDSU dominated both matchups. However, game three was very different.
Early on, the teams sought to establish their preferred pace of play. Wyoming – an up-tempo team all season that less than 24 hours before scored 111 points – shockingly tried to slow the tempo of the game. They walked the ball up court and waited patiently as the shot clock ran down before fully engaging their offense.
“They surprised us with the game plan,” Jordan Schakel said, “Tried to slow the game down. Make it tough on us, and they did. They did a great job. They made some tough shots, timely shots. It was hard to get three stops in a row on this team.”
SDSU expected to see Wyoming’s typical quick pace and tried to coax the Cowboys to leave their game plan in an effort to revert to their habitual style of play. The Aztecs pushed the ball, applied full-court pressure, and dared the Cowboys to play up-tempo with them. Neither team relented all game.
SDSU held a slight lead of 20-16 at the eight-minute mark of the first half. The Aztecs were able to get anything they wanted on the perimeter in the first half. They scored only six points in the paint and were particularly effective in the midrange.
Wyoming led at the four-minute mark 29-27 on the strength of what they do best, hitting three-point shots. Milking the shot clock and limiting possessions, the Cowboys nailed a couple of back-breaking threes. Led by Xavier Dusell’s 14 points, half of Wyoming’s made field goals came from three in the first half.
SDSU led by one heading into the second half due to a clutch three-point play by Terrell Gomez with under five seconds left. At the half, SDSU was paced by Trey Pulliam with 11 points. Terrell Gomez and Jordan Schakel chipped in with seven apiece.
“Just my pull up,” Trey Pulliam said when asked what was so effective in the first half, “Just taking what the defense is giving me. They were sagging off me, almost in the circle by the rim. My pull-up was there the whole game, so I was just knocking it down.”
The second half opened like the first, with the top seed trying to impose its will on the less experienced eighth seed but, the lower seed refusing to back down. The teams traded baskets for the first seven minutes of the half. At the first media timeout, SDSU held a 44-42 lead.
Throughout the game, Wyoming’s defensive game plan was to make someone other than Matt Mitchell beat them. Specifically, whoever was guarding SDSU’s point guard – usually Xavier Dusell – would double up Mitchell in the post. The Cowboys dared Lamont Butler and Trey Pulliam to beat them from the perimeter.
Following the game, coach Brian Dutcher credited Pulliam and Bulter because they “made (Wyoming) pay for their choice to leave them virtually unguarded.” The duo combined for 23 points on 10-19 shooting.
The calling card for the Aztecs all season has been defense, but anyone watching the efficiency Wyoming played with the first 36 minutes of the game would have little idea how good SDSU is at defense. Wyoming took a 61-60 lead with 3:56 following two free throws by Graham Ike. The Aztecs’ defense came alive down the stretch. However, the Cowboys made only one field goal the rest of the way.
“We are resilient,” Butler said, “In practice, we had a couple of closes games. We knew when it came to a real game to finish the game, close the game out. … we all played well and got the job done.”
There were two turning points in the game. The first occurred with 9:21 left in the second half. Hunter Maldonado picked up his fourth foul. He finished with 12 points and had four assists, but his importance to Wyoming’s offense cannot be overestimated. He returned with about three minutes left in the game and promptly hit a step-back three to give Wyoming their final lead of the game.
The second was the decision of the smaller player on the court to put his team on his back down the stretch. Throughout the year, Terrell Gomez has repeated that he came to SDSU for success in March. Following the game, Gomez said he could not waste the opportunity. Gomez re-entered the game with 9:39 left and the Aztecs down 49-46. He hit a jumper to bring them to within one. Next possession, he made a layup to give SDSU a one-point lead. Each time, though, Wyoming would respond. A three put the Cowboys up two, but Gomez had an answer of his own. Two layups by Gomez tied and gave SDSU the lead with 5:43 left.
A few minutes later, with Wyoming back up 61-60, Gomez hit a three to give the Aztecs the lead yet again. Back and forth it went. Finally, Gomez would put SDSU in the lead for good. His pair of free throws with 1:30 seconds left gave SDSU a one-point lead. Four free throws down the stretch by Matt Mitchell sealed the victory, but it was the senior graduate transfer who carried the load for the number one seed.
SDSU plays tomorrow in the semifinals against Nevada after the Wolfpack defeated Boise State, all but ending the Broncos’ hopes for an at-large bid.