Honored Aztecs only halfway toward goals

by Ruben Meza

Although numerous accolades and milestones have officially been awarded already, the San Diego State women’s basketball team is only halfway done with its season goals.

SDSU (22-6, MW 12-2) earned more than 20 wins and was named the Mountain West Regular-Season Champions. The trophy belongs to the Aztecs and the banner has found a place in the rafters of Viejas Arena.

Still, two goals remain for SDSU: winning the Conoco Mountain West Tournament and earning a seed in the NCAA Tournament. The latter is almost unlikely to reach without the former being achieved, considering the MW is not recognized by many voters as a two-bid league. The tournament (Wednesday through Sunday) will ultimately conclude with one team awarded a spot in the Big Dance.

It all comes down to a win-and-you’re-in scenario, and Aztecs head coach Beth Burns knows it better than anyone else.

“It’s the survive-and-advance part of our season,” Burns, who was named the Mountain West Coach of the Year, said. “We’re in a position to win three more and that’s what we’d like to do.”

SDSU has certainly shown it can win as junior guard Courtney Clements, the Mountain West Player of The Year, led the conference in scoring with 17.9 points per game. Clements is the first Aztec in history to receive the honor, and she has done it the hard way, too.

“Courtney separated herself from everybody,” Burns said. “Everybody knew that we were going to run something to get her the ball, and she still made the shots.”

Although being a proud recipient of the award and carrying the bulk of the Aztecs’ offense, Clements is quick to give credit to her teammate, and fellow First-Team All-Conference member, junior guard Chelsea Hopkins.

“Chelsea is the MVP of this team,” Clements said after the final regular-season game. “The stuff that she does are the intangibles and this team doesn’t win without her.”

Hopkins was awarded the MW Newcomer of The Year on Monday after finishing the regular-season leading the conference with 6.5 assists per game, to go along with her 9.8 points and 5.7 rebounds.

With so much offensive recognition, the key to Aztecs’ success in the conference tournament will come from the defensive end of the floor. SDSU not only shutdown opponents, leading the conference in points allowed per game (54.4), but did it on a consistent basis.

The Aztecs took care of the ball, holding a solid league-leading turnover margin of +2.96. A lot of credit for that margin is due to Hopkins, but SDSU’s defense forced opponents to commit 20 or more turnovers in 11 games this season.

With three games throughout the span of four days, the SDSU defensive game plan may need some tweaking.

“Tournaments (bring more attention to) defensive principles than defensive preparation,” Burns said. “We just have to rely on what we know and continue to defend … we’re going to work real hard to cut down the nets next Saturday.”

The Aztecs will start the MW Tournament off when they take on Air Force (6-23, MW 1-13) at noon tomorrow in Las Vegas.