Utah State falls in Mountain West Tournament title game to San Diego State, 68-57

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Aggies still with strong chance at at-large bid to NCAA Tournament

San Diego State guard Trey Pulliam (4) and Utah State go after the ball during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the championship round of the Mountain West Conference men’s tournament Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

LAS VEGAS (ABC4 Sports) – For the first time in three years, the Utah State basketball team lost a game at the Mountain West Tournament.

But they hope they did not lose out on a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The Aggies lost a defensive battle to San Diego State in the MWC Tournament title game, 68-59, avenging two previous losses to Utah State in the championship game.

“Congratulations to San Diego State,” said Utah State head coach Craig Smith, who suffered his first Mountain West Tournament defeat after eight wins. “We know that feeling, and it’s one of the most amazing feelings you can have in all of athletics.”

Neemias Queta led the Aggies with 18 points and six rebounds, but snapped his streak of eight straight games with a double-double.

Justin Bean added 12 points and six boards, but Utah State’s offense could not get on track against the stingy San Diego State defense, shooting just 37.4% from the field.

Matt Mitchell led the Aztecs with 14 points, and was named the tournament MVP, while Nate Mensah and Trey Pulliam each had 10 points.

“I know the guys that were there last year definitely had it in mind,” said Mitchell. “We kind of hoped that Utah State would be here so we could get our redemption.”

“There were some things we needed to be better at,” Smith said. “In a game like this where two very even teams, two teams that are as good as they are defensively, there’s just a play here and a play there that can change the game. That’s how it goes. This time around they made a few more of those than we did. It felt like every time we made a run or a charge to cut it to six, then we’d shoot ourselves in the foot.”

The Aggies struggled with their outside shot, making just three of 13 shots from three-point range. Utah State also committed 16 turnovers.

“There’s just a play here and a play there that can just change the game,” Smith said. “This time around they made just a few more of those than we did. A couple of catastrophic turnovers, we just jumped and threw it, and they get a steal and go the other way. Those are big time game-changers and momentum-changers.”

Rollie Worster and Alphonso Anderson each added eight points for the Aggies.

Already having suffered a regular-season sweep by Utah State, the Aztecs wasted no time at distancing themselves from the second-seeded Aggies by using a 6-0 run to start the second half and take a 34-24 lead and never really looked back.

The first half was eerily similar to last year’s championship game, which saw the teams combine to shoot 19 of 58 (32%) in the first half while scoring 50 points. In this game, the teams were 21 for 57 (36.8%) and combined to score 52 pts in the first half.

Outside of Queta, the Aggies couldn’t get much going with their offense, as the 7-footer had 12 of the team’s 24 points. While Queta was 4 of 6 from the floor in the first 20 minutes, the rest of the Aggies were just 5 of 18 (27.7%) from the field. Utah State was also plagued with turnovers, committing eight under San Diego State’s tenacious defense.

Though the Aztecs weren’t as offensively efficient as Utah State in the first half, hitting just 12 of 33 (36.4%), they got better balance with six shooters contributing on the stat sheet.

San Diego State clinches the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but with a record of 20-8 and a NET rating in the high-30’s, the Aggies still have a good chance to make the Big Dance.

“The top of this league is very strong,” SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher said. “Hopefully were a multi-bid league. But I know when those doors close and they get in that room, over the years the Power of 5s have won the day. Hopefully that changes tomorrow.”

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