San Diego State Aztecs forward Malik Pope (21) makes a jump shot in the paint over a Boise State defender. Photo courtesy of Derrick Tuskan/SDSU

When one of your best players returns to the court, some big plays are bound to happen. And that’s exactly what happened in San Diego State men’s basketball 72-64 win over Boise State on Tuesday night at Viejas Arena.

Earlier Tuesday, senior forward and team captain Malik Pope was given the all-clear to play against the Broncos after being suspended for four days following a report linking him to the pay-for-play corruption investigation in the NCAA. An internal investigation by SDSU (18-10, 10-7 Mountain West) cleared Pope of any wrongdoing.

“I’m so happy to have Malik (Pope) on the floor for his senior night,” Aztec coach Brian Dutcher said. “I think we were all surprised when that story came out on Friday morning, no one more surprised than Malik. He kept his chin up, he was truthful, he told us he was innocent, proclaimed his innocence and then went out and proved his innocence.”

Tuesday night, Pope scored 12 points and made some big plays in the final minutes to beat the Broncos in front of an 11,211-strong home crowd for the Aztecs’ season-high fifth straight win. After Boise State (22-7, 12-5) pulled to within 4 points in the closing two minutes, Pope made a dunk that pushed the lead to six with 1:20 to go.

” It’s definitely a good feeling to be back out there and get all that stuff out of the way, be back playing again and finish out the season the right way,” Pope said.

When Jalen McDaniels missed a 3-pointer, Pope grabbed the rebound and Matt Mitchell was fouled and made both free throws to push the Aztecs lead to seven.

“Our defense is getting better and it’s been getting better for the last six or seven games,” Dutcher said. “Everyone knows (Boise State senior forward) Chandler Hutchison had 40-plus at their place, but I think the biggest thing is, and if you really study it, Malik has become a much better post defender.”

At their last meeting, Hutchison scored a school-record 44 points. This time around, the Aztecs limited him to 18 points, and it seemed to have made a difference.

“Every time he got the ball there were five sets of eyes on him and that makes it tough,” Boise State coach  Leon Rice said. “That opened some things up in the first half for us to make some threes. We just didn’t make them in the second half.”

The Aztecs’ defense held the Broncos to their lowest field-goal percentage this season .396 and the 64 points is the lowest total score for Boise State in conference play this season. The loss was also Boise State’s worst conference loss this season.

“(The Aztecs) always play great ‘D,’” Rice said. “They’ve got good motors and they’re a tough team to score on. They always have been.”

Jalen McDaniels led SDSU with 15 points and 10 rebounds, reaching double figures for the 16th time this season. Devin Watson scored 13 points for the Aztecs and Mitchell had 11.

SDSU, which now sits alone in fifth place in the MW, will close out its regular season against No. 21 Nevada at home on Saturday.

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