SDSU clinches spot in WAC Tournament

by Staff

UNDER PRESSURE: When Roy Kruiswyk wasn’t fighting for the ball, he was helping the Aztecs clinch a win over Rice with seven free throws.
TRAVIS LINDQUIST/Daily Aztec

The memory lingered in the back of their minds; they remembered the agony and heartbreak they felt last season when they let a spot in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament slip right through their fingers.

It couldn’t happen again, not in the same gut-wrenching manner.

It didn’t, but it was close enough to make the San Diego State men’s basketball team nervous.

However, those nervous feelings went out the window Saturday night, along with any hopes Rice had of making the WAC’s postseason tournament in Las Vegas.

Those hopes were dashed on Saturday by an inspired SDSU ballclub determined not to end the season the same way it did last year. That determination resulted in a come-from-behind, 75-66 victory over Rice in front of 5,683 in the last men’s basketball game of the season at Cox Arena.

“It was nice to end the season at home with a victory,” senior center Roy Kruiswyk said. “It’s even nicer knowing we’ll be going to Las Vegas.”

With this victory, the Aztecs (12-12, 5-7 WAC) have clinched at least a tie with the Owls (6-20, 3-9) for the sixth and final position in the Pacific Division in the WAC Tournament. Their win last night, coupled with a win over Rice earlier this season, gives the men from Montezuma Mesa a tiebreaker if the two should finish the season with the same record.

SDSU shouldn’t have to go to the tiebreaker card. It should wind up the season with a victory over lowly San Jose State ? the same team that eliminated the Aztecs last season from the WAC Tournament race.

The scenario was similar on Saturday against the Owls. The only thing SDSU had to do was win.

Last season’s loss was on the players’ minds during the game against Rice. They were determined not to let history repeat itself. They had to do it with senior point guard Jason Richey watching from the sidelines with an ankle injury.

“Winning this game was tough enough, but winning it without (Richey) made it even tougher,” senior forward Kevin Betts said. “Making the tournament this year is a wonderful feeling, especially after what happened to us last season.

“I told everyone before the game that I didn’t want to go through not making (the tournament) again.”

It must have taken Betts’ sentiments a while ? exactly the entire first half ? to sink in. The Aztecs were severely outplayed by Rice in the first half, trailing by as many as 10 points.

“We came out a little sluggish in the first half,” SDSU head coach Fred Trenkle said. “But we got it turned around in the second half and (we) started playing good basketball.”

A different Aztecs team took the court in the second, one with its eyes set on Las Vegas. It was in the second half that SDSU lined up its postseason bid to the WAC Tournament.

Trailing by seven at the start of the second half, the Aztecs started out on an 11-5 run in the first five minutes. Then they took a 50-47 lead with 10:34 to go in the game on a four-point play by guard Matt Watts.

“It was a big shot because it was a four-point play; it gave us the lead, and it got the crowd into it,” said Watts, who not only made the switch from off guard to shooting guard but also scored a game-high 22 points. “From there we just kept hitting our free throws.”

The Aztecs have been horrendous from the free-throw line all season until last night, when they rattled off an impressive 17 straight to lock up their win over Rice.

More amazing than SDSU making its free throws were the players who were making them. Kruisywk (45 percent), Watts (49 percent) and freshman Marcelo Correa (51 percent) have been the Aztecs worst free-throw shooters this season.

But last night they were the ones responsible for the win. Correa, who had 11 points and eight rebounds, went 9-for-10 from the line. Kruiswyk hit 7-for-9 from the charity stripe, and Watts ended the night with 5-for-7.

“I’ve struggled all season from the line, but tonight something was different,” said Kruiswyk, who ended the night with 13 points and 10 rebounds. “Tonight I was a bit more focused; we all were.”

His focus confirmed a flight to Las Vegas and a spot in the WAC Tournament.