Aguek Arop provides the grit and the guts in Mountain West Championship Game

When the Aztecs needed a spark, Arop lit the fuse to help lift SDSU to a Mountain West Tournament Championship


Huy Huynh

Senior forward Aguek Arop looks for a teammate during the 2023 Mountain West Championship Game versus Utah State on March 11.

by Justin Cox, Sports Editor

LAS VEGAS— The No. 18 San Diego State men’s basketball team entered the Mountain West Championship Game in familiar territory. In all six years of the Brian Dutcher era the Aztecs have reached Championship Saturday, but four times they have come up short — including last year’s defeat at the hand of the Boise State Broncos. 

Following last night’s semifinal win over San José State, Dutcher was asked if there was a different feel with this year’s team compared to those that came up short. 

“You know, I can’t even remember all those games, to be honest with you,” Dutcher said. “I just know they’re hard-fought. We’re asking these kids to do an impossible task. To play under 24 hours from completing a game, you’re going to see two teams that play hard as heck, but probably not at their very best. It ends up just being gritty and gutty, and someone makes enough plays to win.” 

Gritty and gutty.

No player on the Aztec roster encapsulates those words more than senior forward Aguek Arop. Known as the heart and soul of the team, the fifth-year senior has battled injuries throughout his college career but returned for a final season in the hopes of leaving a champion. While the season is not over yet, Saturday’s 62-57 win over Utah State provided Arop with some of the closure he was looking for going into the season. 

“Step one was winning the regular season conference and two was winning this,” Arop said. “I’m on the right track to closing it out right. It’s been a real special year. It’s been a lot of ups and downs throughout my career, and I couldn’t be any more happy or proud of the guys that I’m playing with.”

In the Aztecs’ third game in three days, they were in need of a spark. After a brutal shooting start the Aztecs found themselves down 11 early in the first half. 

Insert Arop. 

With the Aztecs trailing by nine with less than five minutes left in the half, Arop scored a tough and-one layup and converted the free throw. On the ensuing Aggie possession, a rebound careened toward half-court but Arop made a full-extension dive to collect the ball and call a timeout to secure possession. His energy and effort are present every time he steps foot on the hardwood.           

“The work ethic comes from God and from watching my parents doing what they do for me and my family,” Arop said. “Not wanting to let them down just knowing I gotta seize my opportunity whenever I’m out there.” 

Arop carried his stellar play over to the second half and was instrumental in closing out the Aggies. With 46 seconds left and the Aztecs clinging to a three-point lead, a Utah State three-point attempt clanged off the rim and fell toward a crowd of players. Arop, using all of his 6-foot-7-inch frame, grabbed the rebound and was immediately fouled. Not known for his shooting stroke, Arop calmly stepped to the line and swished both free throws to put the Aztecs up five. 

After the make, he backpeddled towards the opposite side of the court with hands held high, as he screamed in triumph. 

“He brings (the energy) to the court and brings it to his life,” Dutcher said. “He brings it to the people around him and he’s an incredible leader and an incredible player.” 

Just thirty seconds later, Arop again found himself at the line. After missing the first, it would have been easy to be rattled as the Utah State crowd jeered loudly in his line of sight. But not Arop. He calmly swished the second to put the Aztecs back up five in the closing seconds. 

With just eight seconds left, Arop had just enough time to make one more play. Utah State senior guard Sean Bairstow attempted a desperation three, but Arop was there to get a hand on the shot and force the miss. A fitting end to his masterclass in hustle in the biggest game of SDSU’s season to this point. He finished the game with eight points, eight rebounds and a game-high +19 plus-minus. 

The Aztecs will be back in action next week in the NCAA Tournament. The Aztecs’ seed and first-round matchup will be announced tomorrow on Selection Sunday.