#20 SDSU vs Utah State: Aztecs look to beat Aggies for 3rd time in controversy filled Mountain West Championship

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On one bench Friday evening stood a team with the newly named MW Conference Coach of the Year and Player of the Year. On the other bench was the #20th team in the nation.

On one bench stood a team making just their first ever semifinal tournament game in program history. On the other bench was a team who has appeared in 12 of the last 14 championship games.

It was no contest.

San Diego State Head Coach Brian Dutcher and his band of experienced ballers stymied San Jose State’s award winners with smothering defense, in route to a 64-49 win. 

The convincing win slots the Aztecs, 26-6 on the season, into the MWC Tournament championship game for the sixth consecutive year and 13th time in the last 15 seasons. The Aztecs will play the #3 seeded Utah State Aggies in the Saturday afternoon final at 3:00 p.m. on CBS.

After putting up a bagel in the quarterfinal matchup on Thursday against Colorado State, Darrion Trammell came out hot from the jump on Friday against the Spartans. The guard got SDSU on the board hitting his first shot, going on to tally eight points for the half. Trammell finished the night with 15 points tied with forward Keshad Johnson who also scored 15 while adding four rebounds and two blocks.

In the first half, the Aztecs locked in defensively and used an 18-4 scoring run to post an early 25-12 lead. The 13-point margin held as the MWC regular season champs headed to the locker room up 33-20.

A 7-2 start to the second half staked SDSU to a comfortable 40-22 and the game never appeared in doubt from there. Friday night’s win marked the Aztecs 11th consecutive over San Jose State.

Facing one of the league’s toughest defenses, the San Jose State coaching staff could not find a way to unleash star guard Omari Moore. The MWC Player of the Year struggled to find open looks against the Aztecs smothering defense. Moore, who came in averaging 17.8 points per game, managed only seven on 3-of-13 shooting.

SDSU, behind two conference Defensive Players of the Year in Nathan Mensah and Lamont Butler, Jr., held the Spartans to 34.5% shooting (19 of 55) on the night, including a measly 26% (5 of 19) from beyond the arc. 

Tibet Gorener led SJSU with 15 points, the only Spartan to tally double figures.

“We play hard on defense and we have great depth so we always have fresh legs on the floor,” Coach Dutcher told CBS Sports’ AJ Ross postgame. “We are able to press (in) back-to-back games and hopefully we can press again tomorrow because we have a deep bench.”

In the postgame press conference, Johnson echoed his coach’s praise of the team’s defensive effort against the Spartans.

“We’ve got a lot of great defensive performances, and this is just another one to add on to that long list,” he said. “We all came connected. Kudos to San Jose State. They do a great job with the ball screens, and we just had to contain them. We had the right game plan. Kudos to our coaches to get us right mentally and make sure we knew the test that we had ahead of us.”

For the fourth time in the past five years, San Diego State and Utah State will meet in the Mountain West championship game.

To win in its third game in three days and secure another MWC Tournament championship, the Aztecs will need fresh legs to stay locked in on defense and to hit shots on the offensive end in the final. 

Originally tweeted by Mountain West (@MountainWest) on March 11, 2023.

After having put clamps on both Isaiah Stevens of Colorado State and Omari Moore of San Jose State, SDSU will need to be especially fresh for this specific Utah State team offense. For all the screens, picks and running around that guard Steven Ashworth and the Aggies do, it will be the greatest test for SDSU’s guards to face this tournament.

The Aggies are the hottest team in the league, winners of their last 7 games. None of them were close, as they have comfortably won on average by 12 points. Friday night’s victory for Utah State over Boise State highlighted their dominance.

In a matchup where the Aggies had previously beaten the Broncos in embarrassing fashion, the sentiment was that Boise truly wanted to get payback. But even with that dynamic Leon Rice’s team was unable to figure out a way to get back to a repeat championship game.

Now the Utah State team will get their opportunity for payback against the Aztecs. Having beaten USU twice this regular season, the #20 Aztecs did so both in a blowout and in nail-biter.

It was on January 25, when the Aztecs soundly defeated the visiting Aggies by 10 lead behind Adam Seiko’s 25 points on 7 three-pointers. An amazing shooters night no doubt.

It was also on February 8, when the visiting Aztecs escaped Logan, Utah with a two point victory against the fired up Aggies. It was a game full of hot tempers and controversy.

It was during that matchup that Aztecs guard Darrion Trammell was ejected from the game mysteriously after USU forward Taylor Funk crossed paths into the SDSU bench and shoved the much smaller Trammell out of his way.

What ensued was an Aztecs team restraining themselves from any physical activity, but Utah State’s coach Ryan Odom completely melting down further exacerbating the situation.

Shockingly the officials held no consequence to Odom, but ended Trammell’s game early and leaving the Aztecs short-handed in defending the top 3-point shooting squad in the conference.

For the Aztecs to have beaten the Aggies that night in Logan and making it a season sweep, was just one example of the lessons learned for this top ranked SDSU team this season.

To put a 3rd victory over the Aggies and earn another championship banner for Viejas arena, Brian Dutcher’s team will need to play their style of basketball and hope no strange whistles, or antics from the Aggies bench, interfere with the conduct of this matchup.

Overall, SDSU has won 41 times in the MWC Tournament, a league record. A 42nd win could vault the Aztecs into a favorable seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament. 

But it won’t be easy, as recent history suggests.

San Diego has come out on top in the tourney finale only two times in its last nine trips to the championship game. Will this veteran-led, team-centered group be able to make it three wins in 10 tries? 

“We’re asking these kids to do an impossible task. To play under 24 hours from completing a game,” Coach Dutcher told the crowd at the post-game conference “So you’re going to see two teams that play hard as heck, but probably not at their very best. You can’t play at your very best with that kind of fatigue. It ends up just being gritty and gutty, and someone makes enough plays to win. So that’s March basketball, and I told the guys if we play to our capabilities and someone beats us, then we’re going to tip our hat, but we have to play to our capabilities.”

The MWC Tournament championship will tip off at 3:00 pm PT on CBS. San Diego Sports 760 will have the radio call.

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