Las Vegas • It’s the rivalries within the rivalries that will make Saturday’s Mountain West Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament Championship final between Utah State and San Diego State so riveting.
The game many Aggies fans have been salivating over for the last week took shape Friday night when both teams lived up to their seeds. Utah State ended No. 11 Wyoming’s Cinderella run — the team that won just two MWC regular-season games shocked its first two tournament opponents, No. 6 Colorado State and No. 3 Nevada — by handing the Cowboys a decisive 89-82 defeat. Earlier in the evening, the Aztecs survived a fierce challenge from No. 5 Boise State, 81-68.
So, it’s the No. 1 seed (SDSU) vs. the No. 2 (USU). It’s the 2019 MWC runner-up (SDSU) looking for revenge against the defending MWC tournament champion (USU). It’s last year’s Coach of the Year (USU’s Craig Smith) vs. this year’s conference Coach of the Year (SDSU’s Brian Dutcher).
Those things are a given. Dig a little deeper, and other rivalries reveal themselves. Here are just a few:
MOUNTAIN WEST CHAMPIONSHIP
At Thomas and Mack Arena, Las Vegas
No. 1 San Diego State vs. No. 2 Utah State
When • Saturday, 3:30 p.m. MT
TV • CBSSN
Defensive POY: This year’s MWC Defensive Player of the Year went to Aztec junior guard Malachi Flynn. Aggies center Neemias Queta, last year’s DPOY, certainly wasn’t a viable option for the regular-season award after he missed half the season while rehabbing a knee injury he incurred over the summer playing for the Portuguese national team. Still, after struggling in USU’s opener on Thursday, the 7-foot sophomore looked like he had something to prove against Wyoming. Despite facing a double to triple team every time he got the ball, he led the Aggies in scoring for most of the night and finished with 21 points and six rebounds.
“I just felt I needed to have another edge,” Queta said, “and try to play harder than yesterday but still stay out of foul trouble.”
Tournament MVP: Flynn also earned the regular-season Player of the Year award. It’s a sensible pick when examined against the background of the Aztecs near-perfect record. The junior is the best player on a team that lost just one game all season, 66-63 on Feb. 22 to UNLV. Flynn also led the MWC in assists and steals.
Sam Merrill, however, is the conference’s second-leading scorer behind Nevada’s Jalen Harris, averaging 19.2 ppg. In the Aggies’ tournament opener, Merrill confounded New Mexico so much on Thursday that Lobos coach Paul Weir said he’d “be seeing him in my nightmares for a long time.” Against Wyoming on Friday, he appeared to want to take Jake Hendricks, Wyoming’s senior leader out of Sky View High in Smithfield, to task. Merrill finished with 27 points, including a couple crucial 3s he scored over Hendricks in the final minutes.
“It was fun going up against Jake because I know Jake pretty well. We play pickup all the time in the summer,” said Merrill, who scored 18 of his points in the second half. “On a few of those he played really good defense, I just hit some pretty tough shots.”
Hendricks tallied 11 points on three 3s.
“I know Sam pretty well. It was a lot of fun for me,” Hendricks said. “I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove, I just wanted to guard him well.”
March Madness seeding: SDSU entered the tournament expected to take a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but just barely. A loss would surely knock the Aztecs from that spot. The Aggies, meanwhile, are looking to do anything they can to solidify their bid and make Selection Sunday less stressful. A loss Saturday wouldn’t help them in that endeavor.
Dutcher said knowing a loss won’t end his team’s season has changed the complexion of the championship.
“It’s a different feeling than last year, even though it’s still the championship game,” he said. "Last year we weren’t going to the NCAA tournament unless we won it. This year we know we’re going to the NCAA tournament. So it’s just another feather in our cap. We can cut nets down again, but we’re focused beyond tomorrow night. We’re focused two weeks from now, when the NCAA tournament starts.
“So, yeah, we want to win it in the worst way, but there’s not the same feeling as last year where it was, if we don’t win, our season ends.”
The Hurd vs. The Show: Finally, but certainly not the least important among considerations, Saturday will be a test of two rowdy fan bases. The Aztecs brought their Warrior mascot in full headdress and little else to Thomas and Mack on Friday night. They also drew a rowdy crowd and student section known as “The Show.” USU’s Hurd also traveled to the games in, well, a herd, and was helpful as usual. The raucous student section made sure to point out to a Cowboys player, for example, that his shoe was untied.
See, it’s the details that matter. In Saturday’s MWC title game, they could make all the difference.
“We know it’s going to be a heck of a battle,” USU coach Craig Smith said, “and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
UTAH STATE 89, WYOMING 82
• Utah State senior Sam Merrill gave the Aggies some breathing room in a tight game for the second straight night, scoring 18 of his game-high 27 points in the second half
• Sophomore 7-foot center Neemias Queta found his groove again after being hamstrung by fouls in USU’s opener. Queta totaled 21 points, six rebounds and five monster blocks vs. the Cowboys
• Utah State advances to the MWC tournament title game for the second straight season. It will face San Diego State, which it beat for the conference tournament title in 2019.
• The Aggies win signals the end of a Cinderella run for Wyoming, which won two MWC tournament games after winning just two total MWC games in the regular season. The Cowboys were led by Sky View High graduate Jake Hendricks, who scored 11 points.