No. 4 Aztecs headed to MW championship following 65-56 victory over No. 1 Nevada

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No. 4 Aztecs headed to MW championship following 65-56 victory over No. 1 Nevada

Senior guard Devin Watson drives to the hoop during the Aztecs 65-56 victory over Nevada on March 15 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Senior guard Devin Watson drives to the hoop during the Aztecs 65-56 victory over Nevada on March 15 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Raymond Gorospe

Senior guard Devin Watson drives to the hoop during the Aztecs 65-56 victory over Nevada on March 15 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Raymond Gorospe

Raymond Gorospe

Senior guard Devin Watson drives to the hoop during the Aztecs 65-56 victory over Nevada on March 15 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.

by Abraham Jewett, Sports Editor

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San Diego State men’s basketball is headed back to the Mountain West Tournament championship after defeating No. 14 Nevada 65-56 on Friday evening at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.

The game was tied at 51-51 with just over five minutes to play but No. 4 SDSU pulled away after No. 1 seed Nevada failed to score another point until there was only 23 seconds left.

The victory sends the Aztecs back to the championship game for the ninth time in the past 11 seasons, and marks the second straight year SDSU eliminated a top-seeded Nevada in the semifinals.

Head coach Brian Dutcher said the team knows it’s win or go home when it comes to having a shot at making it to the NCAA Tournament in Saturday’s championship game.

“If we don’t win tomorrow our season will be over,” he said. “We know what’s at stake and there’s a controlled desperation to that.”

Unlike Nevada, which is a virtual lock for the tournament as a ranked team with a 29-4 season record, the Aztecs are 21-12 and would be a shocking choice for an at-large NCAA bid.

“We’re playing good basketball right now,” Dutcher said. “What that will mean tomorrow, I don’t know, other than the fact we will compete at a high level.”

Senior guard Jeremy Hemsley tied the game on a made-jumper with 5:09 to play, which started  a 9-0 run that coincided with a Nevada scoreless drought of over seven total minutes and included nine straight missed shots.

“It’s win or go home,” Hemsley said. “Me personally, I still feel like I have a lot to show and my teammates have a lot to show.”

SDSU led by as many 13 points early in the second half but found itself trailing after Nevada went on an 18-4 run to storm back and take a 47-46 lead with a little over 10 minutes to play.

Senior guard Devin Watson led the Aztecs on offense with 20 points, to go along with five rebounds and five assists, and played a leading role in an 8-0 run coming out of the half by hitting a 3-pointer on consecutive possessions.

Watson said he was just trying to keep his cool while Nevada staged their eventual comeback to retake the lead.

“I knew we were still in the game,” he said. “It’s not like we were down six or seven and the game was getting away from us.”

The first seven points of the Wolf Pack run came from the combined efforts of senior forwards Caleb Martin and Cody Martin.

Caleb Martin — the teams leader in points coming in — finished with only eight points after he was forced to ride the bench for the majority of the first half after picking up his second foul just over one minute into the game.

Nevada was already shorthanded on Friday, after deciding to hold out senior guard — and second-leading scorer — Jordan Caroline for rest purposes.

Dutcher said the self-imposed sit down was unexpected, but didn’t make the task at hand any easier.

“It’s like anything else, it’s a wounded animal,” he said. “We knew they were dangerous anyway. They play hard. The greatest quality in Nevada basketball is their toughness.”

The last meeting between the two teams — only six days ago — resulted in a 28 point victory for the Wolf Pack in the final game of the regular season.

Sophomore forward Jalen McDaniels, who finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds, said the team knew it needed to step it up this time around following the lopsided defeat.

“We learned just that we’ve got to play harder, play with more toughness because they’re a tough team,” he said. “I felt like we capitalized on that this game.”

SDSU led 34-29 at intermission, despite missing nine of their last 10 shot attempts going into the break.

The Aztecs did the majority of its scoring down low, finishing with 20 points in the paint on eight layups and one thunderous dunk from McDaniels.

Caleb Martin was taken out of the game with 18:56 to play and did not return to the court until only 3:11 remained before the break.

Cody Martin finished with 14 points in Caleb Martin’s wake but would score only two points after the half.

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