Tarke’s Takes: SDSU’s Mountain West Championship Victory

SDSU celebrates the conference title. (Nicole Noel/EVT)

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Matt Bradley drives to basket past Dan Akin (Nicole Noel/EVT)

It was not easy, but the Aztecs defeated Utah State in the Mountain West final. SDSU cut its second net in the last week. It was the seventh Mountain West Tournament title in program history.

SDSU went through adversity throughout the season, but they matched the lofty preseason expectations that were put on them. They hung two banners and punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament.

40 Minutes

Before the opening tip-off, Matt Bradley walked over to Keshad Johnson and told him, “40 minutes.”

Bradley’s message meant physicality and attention to detail for an entire game.

The Aztecs battled. They rallied from a double-digit deficit. They closed the first half on a run and trailed by only one at halftime. For the rest of the way, it was a war. The Aztecs built an eight-point lead, but for most of the game, it was within two possessions.

Keshad Johnson slams one home against Utah State. (Nicole Noel/EVT)

“Their willingness to pound the paint, get it in there over and over again, physically ducked us in, that takes a toll on your body,” Aggie coach Ryan Odom said.

The Aztecs were the deeper team and tried to fatigue the Aggies. They pressed full court after made baskets.  SDSU’s depth and more adventitious schedule made them the fresher team, and they wore down USU as the game went on.

The referees let the teams play. SDSU was physical on defense and worked hard in the lane to get points. They were outscored in the paint 34-28, but more than made up for that by how many free throws they were awarded for being physical inside. They shot 20-for-26 from the line.

“When the shots not falling, coach always says, gotta get to the line,” Aguek Arop said. “Whether it was on rebounds or drawing fouls, pump faking, getting to the line. That’s just what we do, me and Jaedon, playing our game.”

At times this season, SDSU has not played a complete 40 minutes. They blew multiple leads in the final minutes after losing attention to detail. They have struggled to break the press and have missed free throws with the lead.

They handled Utah State’s desperate traps and hit clutch free throws. In the final 42 seconds, they went 9-for-10 from the charity stripe, giving the Aggies no chance to make a comeback.

When the 40 minutes finally expired, the team was elated. Everyone off the bench flew to celebrate on the court, and the Aztec fans roared. They were awarded for a hard-fought 40-minute effort.

The Unspoken Rivalry

This matchup in the Mountain West championship marks the team’s fourth meeting in the last five years. The results have not gone SDSU’s way up before today.

In 2018-2019, the Aztecs snuck into the MW final game as the four seed, they lost to a better Aggie team.

Lamont Butler brings the ball up. (Nicole Noel/EVT)

The following year was the Aztecs’ best season in school history. They met Utah State in the final with revenge on their mind as they were the better team. But with seconds remaining in the game, Sam Merrill pulled up from the top of the three-point line and put a dagger into SDSU’s heart, a shot that most Aztec fans will never forget. In the following week, COVID-19 ended the NCAA season. That shot was the last memory of that tremendous season.

A year later, the Aztecs finally got revenge, cruising past the Aggies in a COVID MW championship. The gym was empty, and the team still cut down nets, but it was not the same feeling.

Today’s matchup marked the first opportunity for SDSU to claim a win in front of a packed Thomas & Mack Center. Both teams’ fan bases and student sections traveled well. The students also have a rivalry with one another as they both use each other’s chants and debate over who is the loudest in the conference.

After this year’s SDSU win, the teams are now 2-2 against each other in the conference final. Steven Ashworth agreed that there is something special about the matchup.

“Every single time we go out on the court in this conference, we obviously want to win,” Ashworth said. “But there’s also something special when you’re playing against San Diego State.

Both teams have been the class of the conference, now it is time for the next step, win a game in the NCAA Tournament. This is a feat that no Mountain West school has done since 2018. Both coaches wished the other team luck going forward, as they want their conference to look as strong as possible.

“I definitely think it’s a rivalry,” Ashworth said. “I think it’s more of a rivalry out of respect rather than hatred or animosity.”

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Tournament Awards

At the conclusion of the game, Matt Bradely was announced as the MVP of the tournament.

His stats were not extraordinary, but he was the leader of the team. He finished with 12.3 points a game. He hit important free throws the entire tournament, he exemplified leadership for the entire team.

This was a big moment for Bradley. Last season, he walked away devastated as he missed the go-ahead basket against Boise State. He returned this season for redemption.

Against Colorado State, he hit clutch free throws, something he needed for himself when the stage is the highest. He made timely baskets throughout the tournament and walks away with the biggest win in his career. He held his MVP trophy with pride in the press conference.

He made the All-Tournament team, Jaedon LeDee was also selected along with Ashworth, Taylor Funk, and Tyson Degenhart.

“It’s a blessing for sure, but I can’t do it without these guys,” LeDee said. “It’s a team sport; I was up and down. When I’m down, they carried me, and when I’m up, they’re still there with me.”

LeDee did not take much credit for his efforts but was sensational in the tournament. In the Quarterfinals, he scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds. In the final, he was the spark off the bench. He poured in 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds (five offensive).

“He’s a good ball player, he’s versatile, he’s got a good mid-range shot,” Trevin Dorius said afterwards. “He’s quick and explosive, and he’s someone you have to take into account for on the offensive glass.”

LeDee’s season has been tumultuous. Expectations were high for the redshirt senior after sitting out last season. He was praised in the preseason for being a force inside and dominating on the glass. He opened the year hot but struggled to stay consistent throughout the season.  LeDee has slowly found his role on the team. Now in March, he is one of SDSU’s most dangerous weapons.

Jaedon LeDee on defense. (Nicole Noel/EVT)

“When he gets the ball, he’s such a threat,” Bradley said. “So when he’s off the ball and rebounds like he does, it makes our team so much more dangerous.”

LeDee’s performance is exciting for the upcoming game(s) but also next season. While he has not announced officially that he will be using his fifth year of eligibility, his decision to forgo Senior Night points in that direction. Without Mensah in the lineup next year, he will have big shoes to fill. After this tournament, he proved he is more than capable of it.

Quick Takes:

– As a team, the Aggies made only four threes, going 4-for-24. But they also had two taken off the board. Early in the second half, Taylor Funk splashed a corner three, but he stepped out of bounds in front of his bench before the attempt. Later in the game, there was a scramble for the ball as the shot clock ticked down, and Funk ended up with it, and he fired a three at the buzzer. The replay was very close, but it was ruled that he still had a fingertip on the ball, the shot was no good. That shot would have given the Aggies the lead and been huge for their momentum.

– War of attrition. Both sides battled, and with that came injuries. In the first half, Lamont Butler went to block Ashworth on a breakaway layup, and he landed awkwardly on top of his hand. He injured his right pinky. He wrapped it up, but it clearly bothered him. He played the rest of the game, but he finished with four points, and they were both left-hand layups.

Aguek Arop provided a great presence off the bench for the Aztecs. (Nicole Noel/EVT)

In the second half, Nathan Mensah injured his right foot. Trainer, Sergio Ibarra wrapped it. When Mensah was on the bench, he rode the stationary bike to stay warm. Along with Trammell’s calf from the night before, these are three injuries to look out for going forward.

– Fatigue was evident. These teams played three games in less than 48 hours, and it reflected in their shooting. The teams combined for 35% shooting from the field and an ice-cold 13.9% from beyond the arc. Both teams missed wipe-open looks and easy shots. The Aztecs were 9-for-20 on layups for the game.

– Next on the agenda for the Aztecs is the NCAA Tournament Selection show on Sunday at 3 p.m. They are projected to most likely be a five seed with the possibility of a six or even a four, depending on how the committee looks at the metrics. They will play their next game on either Thursday or Friday.

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