“Being there my freshman year in the tournament and seeing what it’s like and everything like that, I wanted to get back so bad,” senior guard Trey Kell said. “And we came in wanting to win three, and we just needed one more tonight. And I tried to do whatever I could to make sure that happened. And I’m glad we came out on top.”
Being invited to the Big Dance was not something that was thought possible a month ago when SDSU was losing six of eight but since then the team has been riding a nine-game winning streak — its longest since an 11-game streak in 2015.
“We were just tired of losing,” Devin Watson said. “We knew we had way too much potential to be losing games like that. And mentally from then to now I feel like we’re on a whole another level.”
The game was hard-fought, though. There were 11 lead changes and six ties, but it was the final eight minutes that the Aztecs rallied back to beat the New Mexico Lobos, 82-75, at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.
SDSU was down by six points with about 8 1/2 minutes left in the game and Kell was kneed in the shin in a collision with New Mexico’s Antino Jackson. It looked as if the journey was over for the Aztecs, but Kell refused to let it end that way.
“I felt like I was rolling at the moment, I saw that we were down about six or something like that, so for me, coming out because of an injury wasn’t an option,” he said. “I didn’t want to go home. It’s just as simple as that.”
After Kell was injured, SDSU coach Brian Dutcher did something that no doubt gave some Aztec fans a near heart attack. Dutcher pulled Malik Pope and Jalen McDaniels and subbed in Kameron Rooks and Max Montana. But both proved their worth by adding a defensive presence and spreading the floor.
“I thought Montana being in the game was actually a really slick move.” New Mexico coach Paul Weir said. “It really allowed them to spread the floor in the ball screen coverage, we couldn’t pack anybody in because they were doing a really good job of spreading the floor.”
After missing his initial free throws, Kell hit a pair of free throws followed by Jeremy Hemsley’s trey and Montana’s four-point play, the Aztecs went on a 15-2 run for a 72-65 lead with less than four minutes remaining. SDSU would not relinquish the lead from then on.
“I told Max that I thought he was going to do something special in this tournament,” Dutcher said. “I don’t know where or when and I thought he would. He hit the big corner three and got fouled, attacked the offensive glass, and he had his moment.”
SDSU has now won a league record 11 Moutain West titles. The Aztecs are the only No. 5 seed to ever win the MW tournament, and they did it twice, the first in 2002.
Kell, who was named the tournament MVP, scored a career-high 28 points, tying an SDSU MW tournament record. Malik Pope scored 16 points and finished as the team’s all-time leading scorer in MW tournament history with 152 points, passing Brandon Heath’s 143.
The Aztecs now wait to see where they land in the seeding, who their opponent is and where they’ll be playing.