The Aztecs’ quest for a Mountain West Conference Tournament championship looked to be slipping away yet again. Down ten points inside five minutes remaining in the first half, the Aztecs’ offense was struggling to put the ball in the basket, shooting only 27% (7-26). The misses included many inside of three feet that rimmed out. Conversely, Utah State was dicing up the vaunted SDSU defense with pick-and-roll action.
“We were just in drop (coverage),” said SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher postgame. “We call it violent drop. Drop back to the rim as fast as you can, retreat, and make them settle for midrange, but they were destroying us on ball screens.”
With 4:34 on the clock, Utah State’s All-Conference point guard, Steven Ashworth, picked up his second foul of the game when he put both hands on Lamont Butler out on the perimeter to thwart a drive attempt. Ashworth exited for the remainder of the half, replaced by RJ Eytle-Rock.
“Obviously frustrated with myself and just a little bit throughout the whole tournament of careless fouls,” said Ashworth postgame. “Obviously, on that one, I went under the ball screen, and Butler bumped it back. So I had to close out, and he got me with two hands.”
Ashworth commented that he received a reprieve when an earlier foul in the game called on him was changed to a teammate after an official’s review.
“I definitely take accountability that I need to be a little more careful, and I should have just covered the ball screen better, in all honesty, and it would have negated that foul,” he said.
Utah State was up 27-17. By the time the first half clock reached 0:00, the Aztecs only trailed 29-28.
On the floor for the Aztecs were Butler, Micah Parrish, Matt Bradley, Aguek Arop, and Nathan Mensah. Arop, the fifth-year senior, has built a reputation as the energizer for SDSU but struggled through the first two games of the tournament.
In his first stint on Saturday, he missed two shots in the paint he typically makes. But, his second times on the court after entering at the 5:19 mark saved the title for SDSU.
On the first play after Ashworth’s departure, Arop pinned a smaller Sean Bairstow on the right block, took a pass from Butler, utilized a pump fake to get Bairstow off his feet, and finished in the paint as he took the contact. His ensuing free throw cut the Aggies’ lead to seven.
After a missed shot by the Aggies, a loose ball was headed toward half-court. Two Aggies were approaching and looked to have the best chances of corralling the ball. Arop headed for the ball, dove to the ground, and, in one motion, grabbed the ball and turned over to call a timeout to preserve possession.
The play resulted in the Aztecs’ faithful in attendance standing on their feet and roaring in approval for the first time since the early portion of the game.
After the timeout, Butler took Shulga off the dribble and finished with his left hand to cut the lead to five.
Without Ashworth in the game, Utah State head coach Ryan Odom elected to have Eytle-Rock bring the ball up the court against Bradley in lieu of better ball handlers Bairstow and Max Shulga, who were defended by Butler and Parrish. The slower and more methodical advancement of the ball across half-court hindered Utah State’s ability to get into their offensive sets for the remainder of the half.
In turn, the ferocious Aztecs’ defense pounced. Bradley forced Eytle-Rock to pick up the ball near halfcourt, and with no passing lanes, he was forced to call a timeout to prevent a five-second violation.
Shortly thereafter, the Aztecs’ defense kept the Aggies from driving into the lane, and Taylor Funk’s 3-point attempt with the shot clock running down was blocked and secured by Arop.
After Mensah made one of two free throws to cut the lead to four, he fouled Eytle-Rock on an attempt behind the arc, and he made two of his three attempts.
Parrish split two free throws to cut the lead back to five. With both of SDSU’s point guards also dealing with two fouls, Dutcher inserted Adam Seiko and played the final 1:53 of the half without a point guard, a rare occurrence this year.
LeDee pulled in one of his five offensive rebounds off a Bradley miss and was fouled with 1:18 on the clock. He hit the first free throw but missed the second.
It was time for Arop to step up. Again.
He snuck in and grabbed the offensive rebound off the missed free throw with one hand. Later in the possession, he executed a dribble handoff to Seiko while screening his defender, giving one of the country’s best 3-point shooters a wide-open attempt.
Splash. The lead was down to one.
Arop stole the rebound from the Aggies’ on the Aztecs’ last possession of the first half and found Parrish for a 3-pointer that would have blown the roof off the Thomas and Mack Center if it connected. It did not. Another Utah State miss sent the teams to the locker room.
“When shots are not falling, coach always says we gotta get to the line,” said Arop postgame. “Offensive rebounding and drawing fouls, pump faking, getting to the line when shots are not falling, watching the shots go in, you start to get in the flow. That’s just what we do. Me and Jaedon (LeDee) play hard and try to make winning plays for our team.”
In that final 4:34 without Ashworth, the Aggies missed all six field goal attempts and only scored two points on free throws.
“It started kind of at the end of that first half, heading into halftime where we were up, and then all of a sudden they whittled it down to a one-point game at halftime,” said Odom postgame.
The 11-2 run during the stretch energized by Arop gave the Aztecs a clean slate after a horrid start in the first 15 minutes of the game.
“You’ve just seen it for five years with him,” said Dutcher about Arop. “He’s all energy. He’s just a ball of energy. He brings it to the court. He brings it to his life. He brings it to the people around him. So he’s an incredible leader and an incredible player. And he’s a catalyst for a lot of good things that we do on the court.”
The Aztecs used their new life to outscore the Aggies by six in the second half to win their seventh conference tournament title. Barring the comeback at the end of the first half, it would have been very difficult for the Aztecs to pull the game out, given the deficiencies on the offensive end.
Instead, the Aztecs return to San Diego with a second banner to hang at Viejas Arena next year.
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America’s Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.