Aztecs secure a nail-biting tournament title win over Utah State, 62-57

Aguek Arop’s energetic spark off the bench helps the Aztecs overcome an 11-point deficit en route to a Mountain West Tournament Title


Huy Huynh

The Aztecs celebrate their Mountain West Title win on Saturday, March 11.

by Morgan Prickett, Sports Editor

LAS VEGAS — Despite a section of the crowd wearing medical gloves to enhance the sound of their claps, this game was definitely a nail biter.

33 games and 124 days for the Aztecs, yet it all came down to one of each.

The No. 18 San Diego State University men’s basketball team has reached the pinnacle of its season, excluding the NCAA tournament starting on March 16, as they overcame an 11-point deficit to defeat the Utah State University Aggies 62-57 in the Mountain West Conference Tournament title game on Saturday, March 11.

In recent history, the Aztecs have reached the title game 13 times in the last 15 seasons. Yet their record during those games has been a lot less encouraging, winning four of those 13. 

The game opened up with punishing offense down low and suffocating defense outside. The first four points for both teams came around the rim as both teams traded buckets early.

In the opening five minutes, both teams were a combined 0-7 on jump shots until Darrion Trammell’s mid-range fade from the right hit bottoms to bring the Aztecs down one at 7-6.

The next five Aztec points came from one source — an alley-oop for senior Jaedon LeDee thrown by junior Micah Parrish followed by two free throws by the 6’9 big man. The first converted 3-pointer of the game followed the free throws as Aggie graduate student Taylor Funk found himself open off a Parrish turnover before LeDee added one more from the line to cut the Utah State lead to one at 14-13.

LeDee finished with a game-high 15 points and one rebound shy of a double double.

“LeDee is a dynamite offensive rebounder,” Utah State head coach Ryan Odom said. “He’s a shot maker in the midrange and he obviously makes his free throws too. He’s just a winning player.”

Utah State started to pull away for the remaining 10 minutes of the first half. A 13-4 run after LeDee’s single free throw gave the Aggies a 27-17 lead with 4:25 to go in the half prompting the Aztecs to substitute defensive stalwart and offensive workhorse senior Aguek Arop into the game. Arop immediately made his way to the rim for an and-one before diving on a loose ball on the other end of the court to secure an Aztec rebound. 

A 8-2 run for the Aztecs featuring an Arop block, steal, offensive rebound and assist brought the Aztecs back to life as they entered halftime down 29-28.

The Aztecs turned up the heat to close the half. They held the Aggies to just 1-10 of their last field goal attempts, leaving them without a make since sophomore Zee Hamoda’s 3-pointer with 6:57 remaining on the clock.

Both teams traded buckets as 1:45 elapsed in the start of second half before the Aztecs felt the need to bring back their spark, Arop. On his first offensive play he worked his way down low and pump faked a couple of times before floating in a layup. 

Arop finished the game with a meaningful eight points and eight boards.

“Seen it for five years,” head coach Brian Dutcher said. “He’s all energy, just a ball of energy.”

Arop’s impact has been huge all of his five years at SDSU, yet he does not give himself the credit.

“(The energy and work ethic) is from my parents and from God,” Arop said.

After more Arop contributions, the Aztecs evened the score. Arop’s offensive rebound led to a foul, which in turn led to Bradley’s first 3-pointer of the night to take the lead at 33-31.

Matt Bradley celebrates following SDSU's Mountain West Title win on Saturday, March 11.
Matt Bradley celebrates following SDSU’s Mountain West Title win on Saturday, March 11. (Noelani Sapla)

Bradley ended the night with 14 points and was awarded the Mountain West Tournament MVP following the game.

“Bradley was dynamite going to his left and getting to the rim and making some really tough shot shots through contact,” Odom said.

A 17-14 run for the Aztecs until the five-minute mark kept the score close.

A blocking foul by Utah State’s Steven Ashworth then sent Bradley to the line where he made one free throw before having the rebound bounce back to him. Bradley again attacked, earning two more from the line in which he converted. A Trammell mid-range later and the Aztecs extended the lead even more to 53-46.

With two minutes remaining in the game the Aztecs held onto a 7-point lead with the opportunity to potentially ice the game. Bradley worked his way into a stepback-midrange jumper but saw his shot hit nothing but air. Utah State came down the court with the intent to score and made an easy layup by graduate student Dan Akin, making up for two missed free throws just a minute ago.

With one minute remaining, Utah came back down following another stop. Ashworth easily made his way to a layup, leaving the Aggies behind 53-50. During the Aztecs’ inbound they turned the ball over giving the Aggies a chance to tie.

Funk saw his shot off the inbound bounce off the rim as who else but Arop, made his way into the paint and cleaned up the board. Arop was then fouled with 43.5 to go and made both. Never in doubt following his incredible performance.

The Aggies came back down and did what they had been doing all half, respond. Funk found Ashworth in the corner who hit a clutch 3-pointer cutting the lead to 55-53 with 30 seconds remaining.

The Aztecs inbounded the ball into Parrish who then found Seiko. The Aggies fouled the Aztec veteran, but his experience prevailed in the clutch. Seiko made both and extended the lead to four.

The Aztecs celebrate their Mountain West Title while Brian Dutcher is interviewed on Saturday, March 11.
The Aztecs celebrate their Mountain West Title while Brian Dutcher is interviewed on Saturday, March 11. (Huy Huynh)

The Aggies came back down the floor but turned the ball over, eventually sending Arop to the line once more. Arop scored one and the Aggies came back down and hit a layup. 58-55, nine seconds to go. Parrish was next to hit the free throw line, and made both before the Aggies again came down and scored a layup. But it was not enough as the Aztecs hit two more free throws and secured the Mountain West Tournament Title.