LAS VEGAS — San Diego State forward Matt Mitchell walked onto the court with a look of relief as he surveyed the floor before tipoff. While searching for his matchup, he realized the man he had been mentally preparing for wasn’t there. Mitchell was the man assigned to guard Nevada star forward Jordan Caroline, who was scratched just before tipoff. Nevada described Caroline’s injury as an achilles flair.
In the post game press conference, Nevada coach Eric Musselman described the decision to hold Caroline out as precautionary, saying his achilles issue was a “lingering injury.”
The Aztecs took advantage of Caroline’s absence and were able to upset the Wolf Pack, 65-56, in the Mountain West semifinals. The Aztecs essentially controlled the game from start to finish. They knocked the Wolf Pack out of the tournament for the third time in four years and won five out of six against Nevada.
Already playing behind the eight ball, Nevada lost Caleb Martin for the entire first after committing two early fouls before the first media timeout. The Aztecs took advantage. They jumped out to an early lead, but the resilient Wolf Pack hung around. San Diego State led 34-29 at the half.
“I had two all-league players not play in the first half,” Musselman said. “So I think if you took any team in this league and took two all-league players off the floor, I don’t think the game is as close as it was. I thought or effort was phenomenal.”
San Diego State came out for the second half with a sense of urgency, igniting an 8-0 run on two Watson threes and a spectacular reverse lay-up from Jeremy Hemsley. Nevada responded with a 20-4 run of its own and took the lead with under 10 minutes left. Despite Nevada getting hot, SDSU remained composed and never panicked.
“No matter what kind of run they were on, we kept looking at the scoreboard, it was a two-point game,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said. “They cut back and caught up with us. But we were able to hang in there long enough. And then we made timely plays.”
Leading by two with eight minutes to play, Nevada’s offense faded like the desert dust. The Wolf Pack went seven minutes without scoring and missed nine straight field goals. Jalen McDaniels hit a couple mid-range jump shots and Watson hit two big threes that capped the Aztecs’ 9-0 game-clinching run. Watson led the Aztecs’ offense with 20 points. His team held the Wolf Pack to a season-low in points. San Diego State advances to the Mountain West title game and will face Utah State at 3 p.m. local time. This is their fifth Mountain West title game in the last six years, and their ninth in the last 11.
San Diego State Deserves All the Credit Despite Caroline’s Injury:
Even without one of its key players, Nevada is still one of the best teams in the country. San Diego State was able to control the game from start to finish and deserves praise for accomplishing that.
Nevada is officially a boom or bust team
This loss probably drops Nevada down to a 7 or possibly even an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It’s definitely not where we pictured the Wolf Pack to be in the preseason. Nevada has the potential to make a Final Four run anyway, or it can suffer a disappointing defeat in the First Round. This team has often flashed excellence and mediocrity in the same game. So a team on Selection Sunday is either going to be very lucky, or completely miserable with having to deal with the Wolf Pack.
Three-bid Mountain West?: San Diego State upsetting Nevada may have created the best-case scenario for the Mountain West conference. With the Aztecs winning, the league is now guaranteed to have two bids. If the Aztecs upset Utah State on Saturday, it will likely get three with Utah State still having a solid chance of earning an at-large spot. This is something we definitely did not expect in November.