Pope’s Best Game of Season Propels Aztecs to MW Quarterfinal Victory

Credit: ESPN

Credit: ESPN

The San Diego State Aztecs entered Thursday night’s game seeking to build off the momentum from the previous night, in which they outscored their opponent 36-14 in the final 18:35, and 12-2 in OT, to advance to the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Tournament.

That, they did.

SDSU, led by Malik Pope, advanced to the Mountain West semifinals with a 87-68 victory over the Boise State Broncos in Las Vegas on Thursday night. Pope, who had a season high 22 points, also contributed 10 rebounds and two assists in the victory.

Steve Fisher’s ball club started off hot, taking a 9-3 lead out of the gate. Boise State, though, rebounded from the early Aztec burst to take a 35-29 lead with 4 minutes and change to go in the first half. That ended up being their biggest lead of the night, and that lead was quickly erased. SDSU went on a 13-2 run over the final four minutes of the first half to take a 42-37 lead heading into intermission.

The Aztec lead in the second half was only briefly in danger when Boise State’s James Reid hit a jump shot with 16 minutes remaining to cut the lead to four. Jeremy Hemsley, though, responded on the next possession with a three, and the Aztecs never looked back from there. All in all, SDSU outscored Boise State 45-31 in the second half, cruising to a comfortable victory.

Malik Pope’s impressive stat line overshadowed a couple of Aztecs who also played quite well. Transfer Max Hoetzel chipped in 21 bench points, including 5/6 from three-point range. Zylan Cheatham chipped in 9 points and five boards off the bench as well. PG Trey Kell scored 10 points, had six rebounds, and dished out five assists. It was the most impressive win of the season for the Aztecs, who look like they may have finally caught fire at the perfect time.

Steve Fisher confirmed that notion post game, saying, “we played the best we’ve played all year.”

The Good

Credit: AP Photo
  • Dakari Allen’s Defense

Dakari Allen had a tough task of having to guard Chandler Hutchison on Thursday night. Hutchison was the only player in the Mountain West to be top 10 in points, rebounds, and assists across the regular season. Coming into the game averaging 17.2 PPG, Hutchison was held to eight points on 4-13 shooting. Most of those points occurred on pick-and-rolls, when Hutchison was able to shake off Allen for a more favorable matchup. Allen, who won the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year award, has shown why he won that award these past two nights. On Thursday, he was just fantastic, pestering Hutchison off the ball, getting in his face, and making things really difficult. He was a big factor in the win tonight.

  • The Bench

On Wednesday night, SDSU’s bench scored 17 points. On Thursday night, they doubled that total, scoring 34 points. Max Hoetzel led the way for SDSU, scoring 21 points on 7-8 shooting. He also chipped in four rebounds. Zylan Cheatham was physical in the paint and didn’t miss a shot, scoring nine points and adding in five boards. To win tonight, SDSU needed a solid contribution from their bench, and they definitely got it. It was great to see.

  • Malik Pope

Malik Pope gets the game ball tonight. He was remarkable; 7-14 shooting, 7-8 from the free throw line, 22 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, and a block. He also had a game-high six offensive rebounds. His knock during games this year is he sometimes lacks aggression. Not tonight. Pope chirped with the Boise State players, was aggressive on the boards, took the ball to the basket, and was a big factor in breaking down Boise’s zone defense. The junior has had a relatively rough season thus far, but games like this remind you how talented he really is.

The Bad

  • Injuries

Both Malik Pope (hyperextended knee), D’Erryl Williams, and Max Hoetzel (finger) suffered injuries tonight. Pope was quoted as saying postgame that he will play tomorrow, so that is good news:

Hoetzel was able to continue playing following his finger injury in the second half and shot just fine, so there should be no concern there. I haven’t heard anything regarding Williams, but I would probably bet he’s suiting up tomorrow too. The injuries to these three are something to monitor, but hopefully the ailments will not affect their play tomorrow night. In order to have a chance against Colorado State, the Aztecs need all three of these guys to be able to play.

  • Free Throw Shooting

SDSU shot 20-33 from the line tonight (60.6%). That is well down from their season average, which was about 70.4%… they are going to have to make some free throws if they want to win this Mountain West tournament. To be fair, the Aztecs did shoot 80.8% against UNLV, so perhaps this is just a blip. Leaving 13 points out there, though, is concerning. If there was a knock on the Aztecs’ play tonight, it was their free throw shooting. You’d like to see a couple more of those go in.

The Ugly:

  • The Time of Tomorrow’s Game

The Aztecs will tip-off against Colorado State on Friday night at….. 9:30 PM PT. 9:30. Are you kidding me? Someone get the Mountain West Conference a new TV contract. I’m going to have to drink some caffeine tomorrow night to keep me awake.

What’s on Tap:

The Aztecs, with their win over Boise State, have advanced to the Mountain West semifinal game. Tipoff, as previously mentioned, will be at 9:30 PM PT on Friday. The game will once again be on CBS Sports Network. The Mighty 1090 will have your coverage on the radio. The winner of tomorrow night’s game will advance to the MWC Championship Game.

Two down. Two to go. Aztecs… Let’s keep it going!

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