Las Vegas, Nevada
Neemias Queta had the opportunity to become the greatest Aztecs villain in the Mountain West era. In the finals of the 2019 Mountain West Tournament, he went for 17 points and eight rebounds. Last season, he poured in another eight rebounds along with 15 points, where he to lead the Aggies to a third consecutive finals victory over SDSU. Queta’s name would be censored in San Diego along with Jimmer, Bogut, or Bunn.
San Diego State’s star seniors, Jordan Schakel and Matt Mitchell had their legacies on the line too. They are among the most successful players in Mountain West history. Arriving to the Mesa in 2018, they helped lead the Aztecs to a win their freshman years. Mitchell started, Schakel came off the bench.
More importantly, following the retirement of Steve Fisher, they oversaw the transition of the program to a new coach. Brian Dutcher’s first four seasons have been an unquestioned success. There have great players around them, but the two are the constants, the bedrocks of the Dutcher era. Where would the program be without these two players?
There are only two blemishes to their careers. Number one is that they have not been on a team with a deep NCAA run. They will get their chance to right the wrong next week in the NCAA tournament. The number two blemish is that they have not defeated Naamias Queta in the Mountain West Tournament. Saturday, they removed that blemish from their record defeating Utah State 68-57.
The opening tip featured familiar foes Queta against Nathan Mensah. Coming into the contest, Mensah was 1-4 all-time against Queta. Early in his career the hope was Mensah could grow into the type of player Queta is. Mensah took what postgame he called a “stepping stone.” Mensah scored ten points, grabbed eight rebounds and was a stalwart on defense throughout the night.
The chest match early in the game was to see how the teams would matchup. SDSU is known for switching screens, but the presence of Queta did not allow for this tactic. SDSU also did not chose to double Queta in the post. Queta had four early points.
On the other end, Matt Mitchell took Justin Bean outside and created shots off the dribble. He also recorded four early points. Interestingly, Utah State send a double team against Mensah when he received the ball in the post. Mensah found Terrell Gomez in the opposite corner for a wide-open three. Gomez drilled it.
The score was 10-6 (SDSU) as the two sides headed to the first tv timeout. To this point, SDSU’s depth was paying off. They were pushing the tempo at every opportunity.
The teams traded baskets the next couple of minutes. The highlight was a sequence where Lamont Bulter made an incredible spin move, but did not finish with points. Someone in the middle of five Utah State players, Butler got his own rebound, had it knocked away again, wrestled it away from another defender, and passed it while falling down to a teammate. The sequence ended with an offensive rebound and score by Joshua Tomaic.
The defensive intensity of the game was what you would expect from two teams ranked in the top 15 in adjusted defense according to Ken Pom. SDSU lead by five with eight minutes left in the half.
The final eight minutes of the half proved indicative of the entire game: it was a back and forth game. It began with a pair of turnovers by each team. Utah State hit a pair of shots to tie the game, but as he has done throughout the tournament, Terrell Gomez hit a clutch shot when his team needed it.
Jordan Schakel hit a tough fadeaway of his own to put the Aztecs back in the lead by four. A dunk by Queta followed by an answer by Tomaic kept the four-point spread.
SDSU was up at the half 28-24. Matt Mitchell led the Aztecs with eight points. Terrell Gomez had seven. Queta had 12 for the Aggies.
Referees in March are notorious for evening out foul calls. SDSU was called for eight fouls in the first half. USU was called for only one. In the second half, true to form. The refs called two quick fouls against the Aggies to start the half.
Nathan Mensah opened the second half with a purpose. Following a jumper by Schakel. Mensah grabbed a defensive rebound, two offensive rebounds, and hit a pair of free throws. On the next defensive possession, Mensah deflected an intended alley-oop to Queta. He followed that with a lob dunk of his own. SDSU jumped to a quick 10 point lead, forcing Utah State to call a timeout. This sequence proved to be the difference in the game.
The timeout helped Utah State regain control. The team exchanged baskets for the next few minutes with Utah State slowly chipping away at the lead. SDSU held a six-point advantage with eight minutes to play.
The highlight plays to this point include a Lamont Butler steal and breakaway dunk. Keshad Johnson also had a soaring, twisting flip over his head for a basket and an emphatic block. Johnson came over the top on a double team and elevated for the block on Queta. It was so strong. It sent Queta to the floor. He played like someone with energy. SDSU’s team depth allowed for that to happen.
Both teams were in the bonus during the final stretch of the game. A couple of free throws by Matt Mitchell extended the Aztec lead. Rollie Warster answered with a jumper in the lane. Two blow-by layups by Aguek Arop and Matt Mitchell gave SDSU a 10 point advantage again.
Four Utah State free throws and a Queta shot in the lane sandwiched around a Trey Pulliam run brought the lead back down to down to six with five minutes to play.
With the Aggies sticking around, it was not Jordan Schakel or Matt Mitchell who had the ball in their hands. Instead, the two-man game between Trey Pulliam and Nathan Mensah led to a bucket and pair of free throws (they were missed). Pulliam adeptly bobbed and weaved, drawing Queta to him, and threaded the needle to find Mensah. SDSU led by eight with 3:20 left.
A pair of Justin Bean free throws narrowed the lead to six again. A huge steal and finish by Trey Pulliam extended SDSU’s lead again. One more free throw by Bean cut the lead to seven. Another runner by Pulliam, and the lead was back to nine.
With 31.9 seconds, SDSU held a seven-point lead. The celebration from the sidelines began about the 14.1-second mark. Adam Seiko nailed a pair of free throws. Jordan Schakel added a pair of his own free throws.
SDSU won 68-57 to win the 2021 Mountain West Championship.
Matt Mitchell was the MVP of the tournament. He was joined on the MW All-Conference team by Jordan Schakel. The two fittingly brought home the individual awards. Following the game Schakel said someone could steal the trophy or cut down the banner, but the memory of winning the championship could never be taken away.