Battle of the Titans as SDSU faces Utah State in MW Semifinals

Miles Bird dives for a lose ball. (Deanna Goldberg/EVT)

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Finding ways to get Jaedon LeDee the ball in space will be key for the Aztecs on Friday. (Deanna Goldberg/EVT)

The San Diego State Aztecs will face the Utah State Aggies for the third time this season in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament. In four of the last five years, the Aztecs have played Utah State in the championship game of the tournament. 

The Aztecs squeezed out a win over UNLV in overtime 74-71 behind 34 points and 16 rebounds from Jaedon LeDee.

The Aggies went to overtime against 9-seed Fresno State but scored 12 unanswered in the extra frame and won 87-75 behind 29 points and 17 rebounds from the conference Player of the Year Great Osobor.

The Aztecs played the Aggies in Viejas arena on February 3 and won 81-67. Micah Parrish and Eijah Saunders came off the bench and played well. Jay Pal had a coming out game as he went 5-5 from the field for sixteen points. It was a real team effort. 

In the second game, the Aztecs lost 68-63. Darius Brown had a fantastic game, scoring twenty-five points on thirteen shots. LeDee performed better in the second game; he had more points, fewer turnovers, etc, but the offensive support was not there to help the Aztecs pull out the win on the road. 

“It’s Osobor and Brown, who have played in the NCAA Tournament two years in a row,” head coach Brian Dutcher said postgame on Thursday. “They’ve been to the conference championship of their league. There’s Utah State playoff experience, and there’s the playoff experience their players have.”

“They’ve got guys that have played in important games in March, and I think they’ll be ready for their opportunity, and so will we.”

Here are three keys to an Aztecs’ Victory:

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Protecting the Paint:

Statistically, the Aggies aren’t all that different from the Aztecs. They score well around the rim but are far less efficient from distance. According to KenPom, the Aggies score 56% of their points inside the three-point arc. That is well above average. The defensive priority for the Aztecs will need to be protecting the paint and doing so without fouling. If they can do that, Utah State should have trouble scoring, and the Aztecs will be able to keep the game close no matter how cold they are shooting the ball. 

Jaedon LeDee and Miles Byrd protect the paint against UNLV. (Deanna Goldberg/EVT)

Three-Point Shooting

The biggest difference between the two games was the three-point shooting of each team. Utah State was more consistent, shooting 26% in their loss but 32% in their win. That functionally comes out to a difference of one extra shot made. 

The Aztecs had wildly different performances. They shot 45% in their 14-point win but only 16% in their five-point loss. That comes down to a 12-point difference between the games. 

After the loss at Viejas arena, Aggies head coach Danny Sprinkle commented, “I thought the key was Parrish. When he came in, he came in with an edge and made his first two or three shots. … When those guys hit threes, it’s really hard to guard them…”

All season, opponents have been packing the paint and daring Aztec players to shoot the ball. The best way to beat a defense like that is to hit the shots. 

Timely Plays

Despite their record, the Aztecs are still the highest-rated team in most predictive metrics. In theory, that should mean the Aztecs are the best. Whether someone wants to call it “luck” or perhaps “clutch factor,” the Aztecs haven’t been able to make the plays needed to close out games consistently. 

Dutcher, after the loss in Logan to the Aggies, put it this way, “We’re playing well enough, but timely plays on the road are what it takes, and we haven’t made enough timely plays.”

A timely play could be any number of things. Hitting a big shot to take the lead, hitting a free throw, securing a defensive rebound, forcing a turnover, etc. Utah State, led by Darius Brown, has excelled at those timely plays. 

Afer the UNLV game, when asked how winning a close game affects the team after so many close losses, Dutcher said, “This is a good time to start winning close games… Now we’ve got one. We’ve won a close game. Let’s go get another one and another one, and let’s keep this going.”

In order to pull out a win against the conference champion, the Aztecs will need a few more timely plays. They got them in overtime against UNLV. Can they get them again against Utah State?

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