Aztecs blast Broncos, reach MW semis


The team that a day earlier scored 14 points in an entire half, that was on pace to commit 47 turnovers, that missed an uncontested dunk, that let the Mountain West’s worst team get five offensive rebounds on the same possession, that trailed by 21 points and had never overcome a deficit larger than nine all season, that had horrible body language and was shuffling around in a daze and pretty much had checked out … is going to the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament.

Yes, that team.

You wouldn’t recognize the one playing Thursday night in the quarterfinals against a third-seeded Boise State team that beat it by 12 two months earlier. You wouldn’t recognize the 3-pointers raining from the heavens, the 21 points off offensive rebounds, the three charging fouls drawn (which might have equaled its season total), the extra pass, the grit, the hustle, the moxie, the swagger, the sense of purpose, the sense of destiny.

But March is all about momentum in college basketball, and San Diego State magically, miraculously has it after blasting Boise State 87-68 in Thursday’s late quarterfinal at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“We found a way to do what others were saying: ‘Where have you been all year?’” coach Steve Fisher said. “We played the best we’ve played all year, and we picked a nice time to do it.”

Next up: second-seeded Colorado State on Friday at (yes) 9:30 p.m. on CBS Sports Network.

Win that, and they plays 15 hours later in Saturday’s 3 p.m. final on CBS.

The sixth-seeded Aztecs (19-13) continued their audacious quest to win four games in four days – the only route to the NCAA Tournament for the preseason Mountain West favorite – but with a slightly different formula than the day before. In other words, they didn’t score 14 in the first half.

It took them just over six minutes to score 15 against a Broncos team that was in first place for most of the season; by intermission they had 42. The Aztecs had seven turnovers in the opening six minutes against last-place UNLV, and none in the opening six minutes Thursday. They shot 31 percent against the Rebels, 54.7 percent against the Broncos (including a blistering 9 of 14 behind the 3-point arc).

The Broncos grabbed 15 offensive rebounds and had a 21-6 advantage in second-chance points in the Jan. 7 game in Boise. The Aztecs literally flipped the script, with 13 offensive boards and a 21-4 advantage Thursday.

“They just came in and played harder than us,” Boise State senior Nick Duncan said.

There was another reason: Malik Pope didn’t play in the first game.

He played Thursday – oh, did he play. He finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds in arguably the best (and guttiest) performance of his career, continually posting up Duncan on the low block, cracking Paris Austin with a nasty screen, blocking shots, fighting for rebounds, tipping in misses, flying all over the place on defense, long, athletic, graceful, tough.

Whether he plays Friday is uncertain, though, after he felt his left knee “hyper-extend” trying to contest a Duncan 3-pointer with 3:43 left and collapsed to the court. A trainer, doctor and Fisher soon were at his side, brows furrowed, examining the same knee that sidelined him for nine games this season, and the 6-foot-10 junior was taken straight to the locker room once they got him to his feet.

But he returned a few minutes later with an ice pack and was mobile enough to walk to the opposite end of the arena for post-game interviews.

“I’m fine,” Pope said. “It was real minor. Everything should be good.”

But Fisher’s job is to worry, and he did.

“Obviously, I’m concerned. Everybody is,” the coach said. “When you have a guy that has had a lot of missed time because of injuries and he hobbles off, you’re worried. Rather than speculate on it, we’ll wait and see. Hopefully, he will be able to play.”

Just as Wednesday provided an improbable hero in little-used senior D’Erryl Williams, Thursday offered another protagonist whom – let’s be honest – no one could have possibly expected. A night after taking one shot (and missing it), 10 games removed from his last double-figure scoring performance, mired in a shooting slump, sophomore forward Max Hoetzel had … a career-high 21 points in 22 minutes off the bench.

He took eight shots. Made seven. He was 5 of 6 beyond the arc, and the only miss rattled in and out.

“What I’ll tell you is before this game, and I’m sure any of our teammates or Coach will tell you, there was a collective energy and vibe that everybody was ready to go,” said Hoetzel, whose previous career high was 19 in his first collegiate game at Indiana and previous season high was 16 at Boise State. “It was a great feeling. It was something I’ve never felt all year.”

The Broncos (19-11) hung around for a while, shooting 50 percent in the first half against the Mountain West’s best defense. But it was only a matter of time, and will, before the Aztecs pulled away.

It got so bad for the Broncos that coach Leon Rice couldn’t even get a technical foul when it appeared he really, really wanted one. Down 17 with 4:34 to go, Rice had called timeout and a jubilant Dakarai Allen bumped into him on his way to the bench. (Turns out, Allen was inadvertently nudged into him.)

Rice stormed onto the court after one official, then another. They weren’t biting. No T.

It was the second straight year the Broncos have crashed out of the Mountain West tournament in their first game, and the third time they have been eliminated by the Aztecs in the quarterfinals since joining the conference in 2011-12. Their all-time tournament record: 3-6.

“A tough way to go out,” a tearful Rice said afterward.

Instead, the team that probably should have lost in the play-in game gets to face seven-man Colorado State with the added motivation of revenge. The Aztecs led the Rams by 13 in both regular-season games, and lost both on last-second shots.

Pope was asked how badly he wanted another crack at them.

“Oh, very bad, come on,” he said. “Buzzer beaters for both games. We’ve kind of been itching to play them.”

Fisher offered a peak into his strategy: “I’m going to see if we can play a 39-minute, 49-second game, and we’ll be OK.”

Notable

In the other games Thursday, top-seeded Nevada beat Utah State 83-69; second-seeded Colorado State beat Air Force 81-55; and Fresno State held off New Mexico 65-60 … It was SDSU’s 10th straight quarterfinal win in the Mountain West tournament … Pope has now had three of his seven career double-doubles in the Mountain West tournament, which ties Kawhi Leonard and Marcus Slaughter for most in school history … Trey Kell shot only 3 of 14 but he became the first SDSU player to have at least 10 points, six rebounds, five assists and two blocks in a MW tournament game … SDSU set MW tournament school records for points, field-goal percentage and 3-point field-goal percentage. The 64.3 percent behind the line tied for the fourth best by any team in tournament history …

Another key was Dakarai Allen’s defense on Chandler Hutchison, Boise State’s first team all-conference forward who was averaging 17.2 and 7.0 rebounds. He had eight points (4 of 13 shooting) and four rebounds in 25 minutes limited by foul trouble. It was only Hutchison’s third single-digit scoring effort of the season … Valentine Izundu now has nine blocks in 42 minutes over his last two games … Duncan and Paris Austin led Boise State with 15 points each … The Aztecs had a 37-23 overall margin on the boards after losing the rebounding battle in the first game 38-34. “Pounded us on the glass,” Rice said.

mark.zeigler@sduniontribune.com



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