Las Vegas, Nevada
There’s nothing like a heavy-weight boxing championship match in a sold-out arena. The challenger enters the ring first. The champ delays his entry making his opponent wait and worry. Finally, with anticipation at its climax, the champion emerges. On Friday, San Diego State entered the court at the Thomas and Mack Center like a heavyweight champion.
Nevada, perhaps unaware of the MAC semifinal running late on CBS Sports Network, came out from the locker room a full 15 minutes before the Aztecs. Whether by intention or chances, SDSU announced dramatically: the regular-season champ had arrived!
The Aztecs started with Trey Pulliam guarding Grant Sherfield and Jordan Schakel guarding Desmond Cambridge. Sherfield entered the game averaging 18.3 points a game and Cambridge 16.3. SDSU switched every ball screen all game leaving Mensah or a center on a Sherfield and Pulliam or one of SDSU’s point guards guarding Nevada’s centers.
Early on, the tactic worked more than held their own against Nevada’s first team, all-conference performer. Through the first eight minutes of the game, Sherfield had two points on a pair of free throws and two turnovers.
The game plan coach Dutcher employed has been the main way SDSU played all season. Nevada knew what they were going to see. Their response was to take advantage of the mismatch inside and feed the center guarded by a much smaller player.
The game turned heated early. Picking up his man full court, Pulliam was leveled by Cambridge on a screen. When the refs let them play, Cambridge looked down and yelled at Pulliam on the ground. At the next timeout, Tomaic came to Pulliam’s aid and Cambridge and Tomaic each got a technical following the scrum.
Offensively, SDSU took advantage of early Wolfpack miscues scoring on two transition threes by Jordan Schakel and one by Adam Seiko. Following the game, coach Dutcher spoke about the importance of getting into transition because it was the only time Nevada lost Schakel most of the game. Each time SDSU collected a rebound, a shout of “go” could be heard across the arena. SDSU had numerous opportunities to run early. Nevada had 10 turnovers in the game’s first 10 minutes.
Fouls were not the only statistic that came up more frequently early than Nevada turnovers. There were 18 fouls (11 on SDSU) called before the eight-minute mark of the half. Both of SDSU’s centers were in foul trouble – each had two early fouls, which meant Aguek Arop was forced into action. Arop has been in and out of the lineup all season, struggling with vertigo. He did not play at all against Wyoming but gave nine important first-half minutes. Coach Dutcher credited three incredible days of practice for Arop leading up to game as the main reason Arop was able to jump in all over the court and offer valuable minutes off the bench.
At the under four-minute timeout, the Aztec had a narrow 30-27 lead.
Foul shooting was the story of the first half. Nevada took 19 and made 16. SDSU was Half of Nevada’s points in the first half came from the line. San Marcos native Warren Washington was 6-for-9, and Sherfield was 6-for-6 from the line. Meanwhile, SDSU was 9-for-15 from the line. Lamont Bulter finished 5-for-7 from the line. Matt Mitchell was 3-for-4 from the line.
Washington led Nevada in scoring at the half with 12. Jordan Schakel paced the Aztecs with eight. Schakel’s points came early in the half before the game was televised for those watching at home. He finished 3-for-5 from the field, including 2-for-3 from three. San Diego State led 37-32 at the half.
The second half opened up without nearly as many foul calls. After exchanging a couple of baskets, the stars for each team took over. Matt Mitchell saw his first three falls, and his offensive game took off. He had five points at the break, but quickly 15 more to that total. Mitchell would finish with 24 points on the night.
Before the tournament, coach Dutcher singled out Mitchell’s issues from three as a focal point for the star forward’s late-season improvement. Mitchell missed from deep three times in the first half, but his first attempt in the second half fell. Following the game, Mitchell said it felt good to see one drop, and it springboarded him to the dominant performance in the second half.
Grant Sherfield tried to match Mitchell. He hit his first field goal 24 minutes and 11 seconds into the contest. His second dropped 17 seconds later. Sherfield led all scorers with 25. However, he was an inefficient 6-for-15 from the field.
The main reason Sherfield was unable to go off for even more was the superb defense played by SDSU center Nathan Mensah. At 6’11, he – without question – causes Sherfield the most trouble of any Aztec defender. When Mensah was in, Nevada even called for screens so the SDSU center would be forced off their star guard. Mensah’s impact would have been bigger except for foul trouble that held him to only 14 minutes.
Throughout the game, the Aztecs had a different player carry the team through stretches offensively. Schakel and Gomez started the game well. Mitchell jumped in at the start of the second half. Still, Nevada hung around, setting the stage for Trey Pulliam to take the lead on offense. Pulliam was sensational again tonight and came through when SDSU need him most. He finished the game with 13 points on 6-for-12 shooting.
SDSU led 71-60 at the under four-minute timeout. From there, SDSU put the game away on defense and the free-throw line. They won 77-70 and play Utah State tomorrow. It will be the team’s fourth consecutive tournament final.