Mountain West Championship Preview: #1 SDSU vs. #3 Utah State

SDSU leaves the court against SJSU. (Nicole Noel/EVT)

Credit: NCAA Logo

Path to the championship

The San Diego State men’s basketball team shot 40.7% from the field in their 64-49 win over the San Jose State Spartans. Despite the poor shooting percentage, the Aztecs relied on their defense to move on to the championship game.

“We got a lot of great defensive performances, and this is just another one to add onto a long list,” Keshad Johnson said after the win yesterday. “Kudos to our coaches for getting us ready mentally and making sure we knew the task at hand.” 

Johnson and Darrion Trammell combined for 30 of the Aztecs’ 64 points and shot a combined 10-for-14 from the field.

The Aztecs play the Utah State Aggies in the Mountain West Championship game this afternoon.

The Aggies had a very good season. They were 26-7 overall and 13-5 in conference play. 

Coming into their semifinal game against Boise State, they were ranked #9 in effective field goal percentage and #12 in adjusted offensive efficiency according to Kenpom but did not play like it in the first half.

USU was down 36-28 at the first half, shooting 37.5% from the field and 20% from beyond the arc.

In the second half, their fanbase played a key factor in helping create momentum for them. They outscored the Broncos by 18 points. They shot an identical 42.9% from the field (12-28) and beyond the arc (6-14). The Aggies won 72-62.

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“We’re very fortunate to win. Boise came after us in the first half, and they were really impressive,” USU head coach Ryan Odem said yesterday. “These guys had a goal over the summer to compete for a championship in the Mountain West. It’s really a competitive league and a league that needs to be celebrated around the country.”

USU’s Steven Ashworth, who had 14 points on four-for-13 shooting against BSU, touched on facing SDSU on a neutral court after losing the two match

Keshad Johnson had 15 points against SJSU. (Nicole Noel/EVT)

-ups against them in the regular season.

“It’s a big game, it’s the championship game, and we know how good this league is,” Ashworth said yesterday. “We know how great they are, and we got to play our best basketball.”

Regular season meetings between the two teams

In the Aztecs’ first match-up against USU on Jan. 25 at Viejas Arena, SDSU won by 10 points.

The Red and Black had a great first half, being up 42-27 and including Adam Seiko’s six-straight three-pointers. In the second half, the Aggies were the more efficient shooting team and scored five more points in the final 20 minutes. The game drew close late, but the Aztecs pulled away, winning 85-75.

Seiko had his best game of the season, scoring 25 points on seven-for-10 shooting.

USU’s Taylor Funk had a great performance, scoring 22 points on eight-for-13 shooting. The Aggies shot really well from beyond the arc in the second half (53.85%), but it was too little too late.

Adam Seiko against SJSU. (Nicole Noel/EVT)

In the second match-up, it was a lot more competitive but very similar.

SDSU led 44-28 at the half but was outscored significantly in the second half by Utah State, 33-19.

The Aztecs survived Dee Glen Smith Spectrum with a 63-61 victory behind an 18-point performance from Matt Bradley and got great contributions from Jaedon Ledee and Micah Parrish off the bench. Ledee and Parrish combined for 25 points.

Ashworth had a team-leading 18 points, with most of his points coming in the first half, and was not helpful enough in the second to gut out a win at home against a very good SDSU defense.

Player to watch

Ashworth will be the player the Aztecs need to watch. 

 

Nathan Mensah will need to guard on the perimeter against Utah State. (Nicole Noel/EVT)

Utah State has the best three-point shooting percentage in the Mountain West (40%), and Ashworth leads the team in percentage beyond the arc (44.8%).

The Aztecs will need to closely guard him around the perimeter. When defending Ashworth, SDSU defenders need to work through ball screens, so they do not give up open looks.

As efficient Utah State is at shooting, SDSU’s defense is going to have to put hands in Ashworth’s face and can’t allow him to create separation one-on-one with a defender.

If they are going to stop the best three-pointer shooter in the Mountain West, the Aztec defense will need to bring its A+ game. 

Keys to victory

1. The Aztec faithful overpowered their opponents’ fanbases the past couple of days. They were a key factor to SDSU’s two tournament victories.

Which fan base will win the day on Saturday? (Nicole Noel/EVT)

Utah State’s fanbase did the same yesterday. They took over Thomas and Mack and forced Boise State to play in a hostile environment. During the second half, when the Aggies were a couple points behind the Broncos, Ashworth encouraged the Aggie crowd.

“The main thing is out there on the court, but the crowd has a huge effect on the outcome of the games,” Ashworth said postgame. “When the fans are showing up like they are down here in Las Vegas, it just adds that extra element.”

Whichever team has the louder fanbase will help determine momentum in the game.

2. It is crucial that the Aztec defense closely guards the three-point line.

Besides Ashworth, Max Shulga had 19 points and three huge three-pointers yesterday. Sean Bairstow added a dozen 12 points and shot five-for-12 from the field yesterday. USU has efficient perimeter shooters and cannot be left open.

The Aggies have the fifth best three-point percentage in the country, according to Kenpom. They likely punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament already. SDSU will need to be at its best, or the Aztecs will go back-to-back years suffering tough losses in the Mountain West Championship game.

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