San Diego State’s NCAA tournament hopes took a serious hit Saturday after losing 68-63 to Fresno State in the Mountain West Tournament final.
Without the automatic tournament bid, the Aztecs have a long 24 hours until the NCAA tournament field is announced on Selection Sunday.
Crunch time free throws, a problem for the Aztecs all season, were again a crutch for San Diego State in the closing minutes.
Down two points with 28.7 seconds left, Dakarai Allen had a chance to tie the game with two free throws. He made the first, missed the second, and the Aztecs were forced to foul on the ensuing Fresno State possession.
The Bull Dogs’ Julien Lewis hit both his free throws to widen the margin to three points.
With 23 seconds left to either hit a quick two-point basket or three-pointer to tie, Jeremy Hemsley tried to drive a crowded lane from the free-throw line and was blocked.
Fresno State recovered and, after another last-attempt foul to stop the clock by the Aztecs, hit both free throws to push its lead to five points.
Per the usual story in Aztec losses this season, the biggest difference in this game came down to perimeter shooting and free throws.
Fresno State shot 42 percent (10-24) from behind the arc and 89 percent (16-18) from the free throw line, while San Diego State shot just 23 percent from three-point range (3-13) and 75 percent (12-16) from the stripe.
Two of the Aztecs best scorers, Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley, struggled mightily from the field. It was evident that both Kell, battling flu-like symptoms all tournament, and Hemsley, still nursing a bone bruise in his right foot, were hindered by their respective setbacks.
They combined for nine total points on 2-18 shooting, including 0-7 from three-point range.
It was a huge blow for an already suspect offensive team.
One bright spot for San Diego State was Malik Pope who had perhaps his best game as an Aztec. Pope got hot right from the start, scoring 12 points after making his first five field goals in the opening six minutes of the first half, including two from behind the arc and a monster coast-to-coast slam with that was Sports Center Top-10 worthy.
He finished the game with 19 points (8-16 FG, 3-4 3-pt) and 11 rebounds, and another Sports Center Top-10 worthy putback-dunk in the second half.
Winston Shepard came close to notching the Aztecs first-ever triple double, scoring 15 points (5-10 FG, 5-6FT), and nabbing eight rebounds, and seven assists.
It just wasn’t enough.
And with the loss, San Diego State’s fourth in the last five seasons in the Mountain West Tournament, the Aztecs will have a brutal 24-hour wait to see if the NCAA tournament selection committee deems them worthy of a spot in the Big Dance.
–Andrew Burer (TWITTER: @andrewburer)