UTAH STATE AGGIES

PK: Utah State Falls Short Of Goal In Mountain West Tournament

Mar 15, 2024, 10:34 PM | Updated: 10:34 pm

Utah-State-Aggies-Basketball...

Isaac Johnson #20 of the Utah State Aggies attempts to grab a rebound between Lamont Butler #5 and Miles Heide #40 of the San Diego State Aztecs during the first half of a semifinal game of the Mountain West basketball tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center on March 15, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ian Maule/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ian Maule/Getty Images)

LAS VEGASUtah State fell a bit short on accomplishing the second of three primary objectives this basketball season.

No. 1 came in thrilling fashion last week when Darius Brown’s last-second three-point shot gave the Aggies their first outright Mountain West Conference championship.

Following up on the two-month journey was spread over three days this week in the conference tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The goal of winning the tournament hit a roadblock in the form of perennial nemesis San Diego State. The postseason-tested Aztecs, who lost to Connecticut last year in the national championship game, thwarted Utah State’s attempt to dominate the Mountain West this season by eliminating the Aggies 86-70 in the semifinal game Friday night.

“It was a competitive game,” said Utah State coach Danny Sprinkle. “I want to give San Diego State credit. They were the tougher, more physical team.”

The tough loss, which was the second in three games to a team that will make its seventh consecutive appearance in the conference final, won’t affect Utah State’s most important goal of making next week’s NCAA tournament. The Aggies, who are 27-6 and ended the regular season ranked No. 18, meet the necessary criteria to earn an at-large bid that will be doled out when the 68-team field is announced Sunday afternoon.

After falling behind by 17 points in the first half, the fifth-seeded Aztecs used a late flurry to close the deficit to a manageable three points at halftime. They took control in the second half to earn the spot in the championship game on Saturday afternoon.

“We knew it was going to be tough with the way San Diego State plays,” said guard Ian Martinez.

The setback, coming to a team that has made the last three NCAA tournaments and was 30-2 when Covid shut down the sport in 2020 – should have no impact on Utah’s State seed in next week’s tournament. The expectation is a six-seed, give or take one line.

Either way, the Aggies stand an excellent chance to advance in the tournament for the first time since Stew Morrill won one game in 2011. Since then, all three tournament appearances ended in the first end.

But this year’s team is different, starting with the confidence that comes from putting together an outstanding record in the face of countless critics. Returning no statistics off last year’s team, USU has long since blown away the low expectations the team was saddled with before the season started.

“We need to get tougher and a lot more physical,” Sprinkle said.

With Mountain West player of the year Great Osobor leading the way, the Aggies will pose a problem for any opponent. More than likely, they won’t face a player in the first round the caliber of San Diego State’s Jeadon LeDee.

The rugged 6-foot-9-inch senior from Houston showed off an array of offensive moves in scoring 22 points to go with eight rebounds. The totals likely would have been higher if not for the foul trouble that limited his playing time in the first half.

“You can get better or worse,” said SDSU coach Brian Dutcher, “and we’re getting better. We picked a good time to get better.”

In short order, the Aggies will get the chance to prove they can follow suit.

“We’ll be a lot better in that first round of the NCAA tournament,” Sprinkle said, adding “You have to play desperate and you’ve got to be tough and physical. I expect our guys to respond.”

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PK: Utah State Falls Short Of Goal In Mountain West Tournament