San Diego State men’s basketball team seniors gave the Aztecs some momentum going into the Mountain West basketball championships by beating No. 21 Nevada, 79-74, in the season finale in front of a 12,414 home crowd Saturday at Viejas Arena.
The win gave SDSU the No. 5 seed in the Mountain West Conference Tournament, which means the Aztecs (19-10, 11-7 MW) will jump straight to the quarterfinals in Las Vegas on Thursday instead of having to play a play-in game Wednesday.
With Saturday being Senior Night, all three of the Aztecs’ seniors stepped up with some big plays to secure the win. Senior guard Trey Kell scored six of his 17 points in the final 1:19 of the game, forward Malik Pope scored 16 points and center Kameron Rooks scored 12 points for the Aztecs.
“These seniors have done nothing but represent this university with great class, both on the floor and off,” SDSU coach Brian Dutcher said. “They are going to get their degrees. They’re going to represent this university far better off the floor than they ever did on it, so I’m so proud of all of them.”
With the scored tied at 40 two minutes into the second half, Pope scored off a jump shot and Rooks hit a tip-in. Kell then hit a long trey after Jeremy Hemsley made one of his two free throws for a 48-42 lead with 15:46 to go, giving the Aztecs the lead for the rest of the game.
” I feel like today, and Boise, and the game before was kind of just a testament to how we’re growing as a unit and continuing that forward,” Pope said.
The Wolf Pack (26-6, 15-3), who had already clinched their second straight regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the tournament, wouldn’t go down easy, however. They came within two points in the final three minutes of the game.
The Aztecs were up by eight points when Nevada’s Jordan Caroline hit a trey, free throw and a put-back to give Nevada fighting chance at 72-70. Kell put a stop to that and extended the Aztecs’ lead by four when he made two free throws and a jumper for a 76-72 lead.
“I know it’s a shot I could get to at any time because they do a lot of switching,” Kell said. “My teammates give me that confidence to take that shot. I saw he was giving me space, so I just rose up. I’m glad I made the shot for the team.”
Caroline had 29 points for the Wolf Pack and he scored eight of the Wolf Pack’s final 10 points in the last three minutes.
“Caroline’s a monster. To me, he’s a first team all-conference player and if it wasn’t for (Caleb) Martin, he’d be in the conversation for conference player of the year,” Dutcher said. “It was a fantastic performance from him tonight and we’re very fortunate to come out of here with a win because they’ve got a very good team, which is very obvious to everybody.”
With the win, the Aztecs snapped the Wolf Pack’s six-game winning streak and extend their winning streak to six.
Up next, SDSU faces No. 4 seed Fresno State at 2:30 p.m. Thursday at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. The Aztecs lost twice to the Bulldogs this season and are looking to avenge those losses. The last time SDSU played Fresno State in the MW tournament was in the 2016 championship final where the Aztecs lost 68-63.