Fifth-ranked San Diego State didn’t hide its feelings when it came to the possibility of having a rematch with the only team that has defeated them this season, UNLV, in Friday night’s semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament.
“That’s a game that we really want,” forward Matt Mitchell told the San Diego Union-Tribune before departing for Las Vegas.
But leave it to fifth-seeded Boise State to spoil the party.
The Broncos (20-11, 11-7 Mountain West), thumped by the Runnin’ Rebels just nine days earlier at the Thomas & Mack Center, bounced back to upset UNLV, 67-61, in Thursday afternoon’s quarterfinals and will get a third chance to try to defeat the 29-1 Aztecs on Friday night.
“It’s the semifinals,” said San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher. “Boise is very good. (Coach) Leon (Rice) always has his team ready to play.”
Top-seeded San Diego State (29-1, 17-1), which overcame an early eight-point second-half deficit to defeat No. 9-seeded Air Force, 73-60, in the quarterfinals earlier Thursday afternoon, easily won each of its two previous meetings with Boise State, prevailing 83-65 in San Diego on Jan. 11 and 72-55 on Feb. 16 in Boise.
“Both times we played them, they handed us our hats,” Rice said matter-of-factly. “They have that record for a reason.”
For a while Thursday, it looked like perky little Air Force might hand mighty San Diego State its hat.
The Falcons (12-20, 5-13) shot 60 percent from the floor, including a sizzling 53.8 percent from 3-point range, while taking a 37-33 halftime advantage and increased the margin to eight points early in the second half.
But San Diego State, which led the Mountain West in scoring defense (59.2), field goal percentage (38.3) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (28.9), clamped down after that, going on a 27-6 run to take control and holding the Falcons to just one field goal over a 13-minute stretch.
“We have been good in the second half defensively all year, and today was no exception,” said Dutcher. “We held Air Force to 27 percent shooting in the second half. We upped our intensity, and we guarded the ball harder and found a way to get out of here with a victory.”
Junior guard Jordan Schakel scored 14 of his team-high 17 points in the second half, while Mountain West Player of the Year Malachi Flynn finished with 16 points, eight assists and seven rebounds and 6-10 senior forward Yanni Wetzell also scored 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting.
“We want to find our rhythm,” Wetzell said. “We don’t want to go into the March Madness tournament coming off a loss. We know every game is going to be a dogfight. I mean, people are playing for their seasons. Credit Air Force. They played a great game today. We know we have to be on our A-game to win this tournament.”
Boise State, which advanced to the semifinals for the first time since 2015, got a pair of double-doubles from senior forward RJ Williams (23 points, 15 rebounds) and junior guard Derrick Alston (16 points, 12 rebounds), and senior guard Justinian Jessup added 19 points in the win over a UNLV team that led them by as many as 27 points in their meeting on Feb. 26.
“Nobody wants to quit playing,” said Alston. “We’ve got a big opportunity tomorrow to get a great win and have a chance to play for a championship and go to the NCAA Tournament. It’s March. This is the best time to play basketball, and we’re going to go out there and compete and go out there and try to get a win.”
–Field Level Media