San Diego State advances to Mountain West championship with win over Utah State

Brendall O'Bannon-USA TODAY
San Diego State advances to meet rival New Mexico in Saturday's Mountain West tournament championship on CBS.

LAS VEGAS — In a year where the Mountain West couldn’t have had more parity, the dominant basketball force in the conference has once again found its way to the championship game.

Despite trailing by as many as 17 points with seven minutes left in the first half, San Diego State dominated Utah State for the remainder of the game to secure an 86-70 victory en-route to their seventh straight Mountain West championship game appearance.

“This team has always had great resolve. It’s got a great grit about it,” said San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher. “We got down 17 in the first half. We don’t panic. We just fight our way. Fight, fight, fight, and we caught a break.”

The big billing heading into this matchup was for the heavyweight grudge match between the Mountain West coach’s Player of the Year, San Diego State’s Jaedon Ledee and the Mountain West media’s Player of the Year, Utah State’s Great Osobor.

The tides of their matchup, in truth, followed the flow of the game and the patterns of the referees’ whistles. Osobor was taking it to the Aztecs early on as Ledee dealt with early foul trouble, and already had 11 points just past the midway point of the first half. In fact, at this point San Diego State only had 16 points themselves as a team.

It was going great for the Aggies, at least until their star fell victim to the referees’ happy whistles as well when Great Osobor picked up his second foul as well and went to join Ledee on the bench. Or so we presumed.

“The whole tournament I feel like they’ve been happy with the whistle,” Osobor said. “We thought, Okay, we’re going to be physical, but obviously, you have to be physical without fouling at this level because San Diego State is a really good, physical team. They exposed some stuff like us coming down on drives and stuff. We need to be better and get better for that for the NCAA Tournament.”

When Utah State coach Danny Sprinkle chose to sit Osobor in this scenario, Brian Dutcher and San Diego State decided to push it and not only trusted Ledee with two fouls, but his teammate Micah Parrish as well.

“When Osobor got his second foul, he went to the bench, they were having a good rhythm, and with him out of the game, they had to change how they were playing a little bit,” Dutcher said. “We decided to play Micah (Parrish) and Jaedon (Ledee) with two fouls each, running the risk of them getting a third foul by half. I felt the way the game was going we needed to make a stand in the first half.

“The game was hovering, and the coaches asked me do I want to put Micah back in? I said, yes. They figured, well, I was getting soft. They said how about Jaedon? I said put him in too,” he continued. “We put them both in with two fouls and it kind of turned the momentum of the game. Because at that time, Osobor was out, so we could go outside to Jaedon. I don’t know if he scored a lot, but he drew fouls and changed the momentum of the game.”

Darrion Trammell brought the crowd to their feet at the first half buzzer, burying what has turned into a signature last second shot going into the break for the second consecutive game. It was, remarkably, Trammell’s seventh field goal of the season with less than three seconds left in the half. The shot also brought the Aztecs within three points at the break after their nightmare start and brought them within close striking distance just as he did against UNLV the day before.

“We were fortunate Darrion hit another halftime buzzer beater to close the gap, and we were in the game at halftime,” Dutcher said. “Then we came out the second half, played our continually good defense, and these two guys made shots.”

Ledee took control of the game and had the clear advantage down the stretch. The Aztecs star finished with 22 points on 8-of-14 from the field while Osobor finished with 19 on 7-of-10 shooting while Ledee also had eight rebounds to Osobor’s five.

A day after Ledee scored 23 points in the second half and overtime to bury potential bid-stealer UNLV, he put 17 on Osobor and the Aggies in the second half and took over the game to a degree that, frankly, made it clear that the Mountain West media had their Player of the Year pick all wrong. However, in fairness, that was probably clear after Ledee served as UNLV’s undertaker on Wednesday afternoon.

“I thought he came out the second half, and he came out with a different mindset,” said Utah State coach Danny Sprinkle. “They went to him right away, and it seemed like he scored five or six right in a row and kind of got them rolling.”

Utah State guard Ian Martinez chipped in 16 points for the Aggies on 3-of-6 shooting from behind the arc to go with five rebounds and two assists. Center Isaac Johnson also contributed 11 points on 50% shooting in the loss.

The win sets the Aztecs up for a date with longtime rival New Mexico. It will be another grudge match for the defending national runner-ups, and will likely be heated matchup that reminisces the 2010’s glory days of this classic Mountain West matchup.

For added stakes, New Mexico will be playing to secure the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and in turn take themselves off the bubble and their season out of the selection committee’s hands. San Diego State’s performance in this game will only be used in seeding arguments, as the Aztecs are as safe as any of the five assumed locked bids that the Mountain West will have.