Matt Mitchell admitted it. He and his teammates wanted a piece of Utah State.
The Aggies beat them in Mountain West championship games the last two years, then took two from a weakened Aztec team this season, as Mitchell suffered a knee injury and Nathan Mensah battled altitude sickness.
“Guys there last year definitely had it in mind,” he said, the it being “redemption.”
They got it Saturday in Las Vegas, as San Diego State earned the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with a 68-57 victory over Utah State.
No. 19 SDSU won their 14th straight as the teams faced off for the tournament championship for the third consecutive year. The Aztecs also claimed their first tournament win since 2018, and won both the regular-season and tournament crowns for the first time since 2011.
It’s also only the second time they’ve won the conference tournament as the top seed. The last time was 2006.
Mitchell, one of the Mountain West’s Players of the Year, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. He averaged 15.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in his three contests in Las Vegas.
He finished the Utah State game with 14 points, but the team spread the offense around. Mensah and Trey Pulliam each scored 10, while Jordan Schakel – who made the All-Tournament Team with Mitchell – and Terrell Gomez added nine each.
“We have belief and faith in all the guys to get the job done … I want these guys to take their shot,” Mitchell said.
In a tight first half, the Aztecs, who often turn to three-pointers, demonstrated their versatility, scoring half of their points in the paint.
They also grabbed offensive rebounds. Just under the 12-minute mark, freshman Lamont Butler missed a layup, got the rebound and Schakel launched a three, but missed. Then Joshua Tomaic again claimed the ball and made the layup, to make it 14-11.
Utah State would tie the score at 18 with 6:36 to go in the half, as Brock Miller made a three-point jumper, but Gomez headed back up the court to made his own. Schakel quickly followed with a turnaround jumper.
The Aztecs took a 28-24 lead into the break. Mitchell led his team in the half with eight points, while Neemias Queta scored 12 for Utah State.
SDSU also forced the Aggies into eight turnovers in the half. They added eight more in the second half as the Aztecs took charge, jumping out to a 10-point lead off a Shackel jumper. Mensah added two free throws then preceded to make a monster dunk off an assist by Pulliam.
Mensah also out-rebounded Queta, the other Mountain West Player of the Year, snagging eight to Queta’s six.
Queta also made the All-Tournament Team, along with fellow Aggie Justin Bean and Grant Sherfield of Nevada.
Coach Brian Dutcher pointed to his team’s depth after the game, but singled out Mensah, saying “he stepped up and played magnificently” after two tough games to open the tournament.
The Aztecs learn their tournament match-up at 3 p.m. Sunday, as the Selection Committee announces bids and brackets.
The first round begins Thursday. The event will be held solely in Indianapolis, rather than the traditional regional sites, due to the pandemic.
Updated 6:45 p.m. March 13, 2021