LAS VEGAS — No. 1 San Diego State didn’t start Saturday’s Mountain West Conference title game with a 19-0 or 12-0 run.
It had been the Aztecs’ signature strategy – one that made No. 9 Nevada and No. 5 New Mexico nonfactors within minutes in the quarterfinals and semis.
Those fast starts.
The Aztecs got off to a 7-0 run to start the game against the Bulldogs.
And Fresno State had an answer in its 76-70 conference championship win over the Aztecs at the Thomas & Mack Center: 23-0.
Fresno State (24-8), though not the one to come flying out the gates, was the one to make the sharp passes, the crisp cuts between defenders to score 23 unanswered in the midst of the Aztecs’ collapse.
In that scoring barrage, the Bulldogs shot 9-of-13 from the field. San Diego State went 0-of-10.
Fresno State led 45-34 at halftime – the Aztecs’ largest deficit at the half this season.
“Well, to credit Fresno State, they didn’t miss a shot,” said San Diego State guard Courtney Clements, who finished with team-high 15 points. “I don’t think that they missed. When they had an opportunity to knock down an open shot, they took the opportunity. All the credit goes to them.
“They found the flaws in our defense and they did what they had to do.”
The Bulldogs shot 37.3 percent against San Diego State (who shot less than 40 percent in each of their wins) and took a stranglehold over the Aztecs, leading 56-34 with 15:56 to play.
But, “we needed to keep our composure because we knew San Diego State is a great team. They were going to come out hard,” senior guard Rosie Moult said.
“We had to make sure we were still being tough and physical on defense and creating shots on offense, and we did that well.”
San Diego State answered back with a 14-2 run late in the second half to pull within two (71-69) with 1:13 left in the game.
But in a second half in which Fresno State always led, it was too little too late.
San Diego State (26-6) and Fresno State split the regular-season conference series. The Bulldogs took the Mountain West opener on Jan. 9 with an 80-72 win at Viejas Arena.
It was at that point in the season in which the Aztecs started their 17-game win streak. And it was also during that span in which San Diego State took the second match at the Save Mart Center, 74-49.
But, in this third meeting, “we really didn’t have our normal sense of defensive presence, and frankly, really didn’t follow many of the rules that we had aspired to going into the game,” San Diego State coach Beth Burns said.
“We usually start and finish halves really well. That’s been a trademark of our team. And obviously what happened to us at the end of the first half, which was just an end result of our lack of defensive composure the majority of the half, really hurt us.”
Fresno State advances to the NCAA Tournament for the sixth-straight season. The Bulldogs will find out their seeding and their opponent on Monday. The Bulldogs have not advanced past the first round in any of their trips. This is something they hope to change this year, Fresno State coach Raegan Pebley said.
“Our preparation, there’s nothing we can do really until we see what the seeding comes out. Once that comes out, we’re going to prepare like we do for any and every game.
“You just got to believe in how you do things, approach everything with poise and confidence. I think that bleeds and spills over to your players.
“Business as usual, but we’ll enjoy the experience. This team has talked about how they wanted to not just get in. They want to advance. That’s the next step that our program needs to take,” Pebley said. “We’re going to go for it.”