With less than a second on the clock, Nathan Mensah made one of two free throws, leaving the Aztecs (25-6) vulnerable to a three-pointer, which Ram Isaiah Stevens heaved from well beyond half court – and he was nearly on target.
The ball, though, bounced off the front of the rim. On the sideline, a stunned Matt Bradley put his hands on his head in relief as top-seeded SDSU survived to make the MW semi-finals and take on San Jose State (20-12).
“It’s March basketball. Every game is going to be like this,” coach Brian Dutcher told CBS Sports Network.
The Aztecs got off to a slow start in Las Vegas as the Rams (15-18) jumped out to an 8-0 lead, but SDSU improved – a Keshad Johnson layup put them on the board and his dunk pulled them within one, at 10-9.
Yet San Diego State, ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press Top 25, couldn’t shake eight-seed Colorado State. There were nine ties and 11 lead changes throughout the game and the Aztecs enjoyed the largest second-half lead, up five with 2:37 to play, yet watched it immediately evaporate.
Still, to get to that point SDSU had to make up some ground, and managed to hang around despite being hampered by eight turnovers in the first half.
They also contended with the hot hand of John Tonje, who scored 11 of his 13 points for the half in the first seven minutes of the game. After the Johnson dunk, free throws by Lamont Butler and two jumpers by Adam Seiko – the Aztecs enjoyed a bit of good fortune on the first as replays showed he stepped out of bounds – they pulled within one again at 18-17.
Three minutes later, Bradley tied the game with a three-pointer, his only score of the half. But just as the Rams contained Bradley, the Aztecs shut down Stevens, who didn’t record a basket until the second half.
Tonje picked up the slack for Colorado State and late in the half, Butler did the same for San Diego State, giving his team its first lead with 3:25 left. After a rebound by Jaedon LeDee, Butler’s layup tied it up at 23, and a Baylor Hebb foul put him on the line, where he made the free throw.
The Aztecs would carry a 27-25 advantage into the break, and increased the lead to four upon their return to the court. Colorado State, though, tied the game at 31 on free throws by Patrick Cartier, then took the lead anew on a Cartier jumper.
The Rams stayed close, giving Stevens time to come alive. LeDee tied it up with a hook shot and Stevens, the No. 3 scorer in the conference, put his team up again with his first basket of the game, at 14:42 of the half.
The Aztecs gave themselves some breathing room, twice going up by four, thanks to baskets by Bradley and Mensah, but the Rams answered and regained the lead on a three by Stevens off a turnover by Mensah.
Seconds later, Butler responded with his own long-distance shot, to make it 48-all, and after free throws and a jumper by Bradley, followed by a three by Seiko and a free throw by LeDee, SDSU had established a five-point cushion.
It was gone, and then some, less than a minute later, thanks to threes by Jalen Lake and Stevens, giving Colorado State a 60-59 lead with 1:20 left on the clock.
But free throws saved them down the stretch, as LeDee and Bradley made two each and Mensah went one of two during each of his two chances at the line. The final free throw came after Mensah, with a block and a rebound, stopped the Rams with less than 10 seconds left.
Stevens missed a jumper and Cartier snagged the offensive rebound, only to come up against Mensah, one of the MW Defensive Players of the Year. After the scrum, the referees put just .7 back on the clock, setting Stevens up for his desperate attempt at a tie.
After his second-half surge, Stevens had 16 points, as did Butler. Tonje led all scorers with 17.
SDSU next faces the fifth seed, San Jose State, which beat Nevada (22-10) in the game that followed the Aztecs’ Thursday contest at the Thomas & Mack Center. It was another thriller, as the Spartans needed to go to overtime to dispatch the Wolf Pack 81-77.
Tipoff for the Friday semi-final is 6:30 p.m.
Updated 5:30 p.m. March 9, 2023