Third time’s the charm: Aztecs defeat Utah State to hoist Mountain West tournament trophy

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Brenden Tuccinardi

The San Diego State men’s basketball team celebrates with the Mountain West Conference tournament trophy after defeating Utah State 68-57 to become MWC tournament champions on March 13, 2021 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

by Kyle Betz and Luis Lopez

LAS VEGAS— No. 1 seed San Diego State men’s basketball achieved something it hasn’t in 10 years — win an outright regular-season Mountain West Conference championship and tournament after defeating Utah State 68-57 in the MWC tournament title game on March 13 at the Thomas & Mack Center.

It’s revenge for the Aztecs (23-4, 14-3 MWC), as the Scarlet and Black have succumbed championship game losses to the Aggies (20-8, 15-5 MWC) the past two seasons.

While SDSU was happy to be in the game, playing Utah State again after two losses earlier in the regular season and last year’s championship game was exactly what they wanted.

“I think if (the SDSU players) had a choice, (USU) would be the team they wanted to play because they have some pride about them,” Dutcher said. “I don’t know if the coaches were the ones excited about playing them, but the team was and they’re the ones that have to play, so it worked out well.”

The San Diego State men’s basketball team celebrates winning the Mountain West Conference tournament title over Utah State on March 13, 2021, at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Brenden Tuccinardi)

The Aztecs are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018.

Senior forward Matt Mitchell added MWC tournament Most Valuable Player to his resume after putting up 14 points, four rebounds and an assist. The Riverside, Calif. native was named to the MWC All-tournament team along with senior guard Jordan Schakel, who scored nine points Saturday.

Mitchell said the tournament win was another step in accomplishing the team’s 2020-21 goals.

“Emotions are high,” Mitchell said. “This is everything we’ve spoken to life at the beginning of the season and we followed through with it.”

On the court, the main matchup to look forward to was junior forward Nathan Mensah facing Aggies’ junior forward Neemias Queta, and it was well worth the wait.

Queta had his way in the first half, bagging 12 points, three rebounds and three blocks.

But SDSU senior forward Joshua Tomaić and Mensah stepped right up to the challenge in the second half, pestering Queta in the post.

Queta had just six points in the second half along with three rebounds.

The Aztecs struggled heavily from 3-point land (13%), but the team’s post play kept its lead.

San Diego State men’s basketball head coach Brian Dutcher celebrates cutting down the net after defeating Utah State in the Mountain West Conference tournament championship game on March 13 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Brenden Tuccinardi)

Mensah’s eight second-half points (10 total) and eight total rebounds propelled the Aztecs to success down low. That’s after scoring just one point during the Aztecs’ first two games of the tournament.

Tomaić had six points and four boards — two on the offensive side of the floor.

As a team, SDSU went to work in the paint, scoring 40 points in that area compared to USU’s 26.

“Both (Mensah and Tomaić) were productive today,” Dutcher said of the SDSU bigs. “When you’re getting good play from both Nathan and Joshua, we’re really hard to guard.”

All 10 Aztecs who appeared scored at least once and SDSU trailed or was tied with the Aggies for less than three minutes of game time.

San Diego State men’s basketball head coach Brian Dutcher is caught by his players after doing a “trust fall” after the Aztecs’ 68-57 Mountain West Conference tournament victory over Utah State on March 13 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. (Brenden Tuccinardi)

While the Aztecs’ offense provided just enough to get the win, it was the typical SDSU defense that got it the title.

The Aggies committed 16 turnovers on the day — 10 of which were caused by Aztec steals. Those USU errors turned into 14 SDSU points.

Those advantages proved to be too much for the Aggies, and it resulted in the Aztecs getting showered in purple and silver streamers.

Among those who will appreciate this title the most are players like seniors Terrell Gomez and Tomaić, who transferred to SDSU for this exact reason — to win titles and compete in March. 

“This is what I came here for,” Gomez said. “Now I’m just excited to play in the big dance, something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. This is gonna be something that I can talk about, motivate kids in the future about and it’ll be a part of my story.”

Up next…

The Aztecs now await Selection Sunday and their position in the NCAA Tournament, which is set to begin on March 18.

SDSU plans to travel straight to Indianapolis Sunday for March Madness after its stay in Las Vegas.

While the Aztecs can celebrate the victory, for now, Mitchell said their work is just getting started.

“We’re only moving forward from here,” Mitchell said. “We’re happy but we can’t be content.”

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