SAN DIEGO — San Diego State’s three seniors came up big on Senior Night, giving the Aztecs some momentum going into the Mountain West Conference Tournament.
Trey Kell scored six points in the final 1:19 to finish with 17 and fellow senior Malik Pope scored 16 to lead San Diego State to a 79-74 victory against No. 21 Nevada on Saturday night that gave the Aztecs the No. 5 seed in the MWC Tournament.
The victory, coupled with Wyoming’s loss at Boise State, means the Aztecs (19-10, 11-7) avoid a play-in game in Las Vegas on Wednesday and will instead start in the quarterfinals on Thursday. SDSU won its sixth straight game and finished with home wins against the league’s top two teams, Nevada and Boise State.
“I feel we can take advantage of it,” Pope said of the extra day off. “We’ve showed glimpses here and there. We are getting a lot better than when we started. We are making great progress.”
Still, the Aztecs will have to run the table in Vegas in order to get an NCAA berth. Otherwise, they might not even get an NIT bid because their season overall has been disappointing.
“I told the team two weeks ago we are the best team in this conference and if you don’t believe that you shouldn’t step on the floor,” coach Brian Dutcher said. “We have to prove that every night we go out there. They were up for every challenge. Our defense is getting so much better now. Our rebounding was great for such a physical team that they are.”
SDSU’s other senior, Kameron Rooks, scored 12.
Jordan Caroline scored eight of Nevada’s final 10 points in the last 3 minutes and finished with 29 for the Wolf Pack (26-6, 15-3), who had already clinched its second straight regular-season title and the No. 1 seed. The Wolf Pack’s six-game winning streak was snapped, and it failed to tie SDSU’s record of 16 conference wins in a season.
SDSU led by eight points with 3 minutes left after a layup by Pope, but Caroline hit a 3, a free throw and a put-back to pull the Wolf Pack to 72-70.
Kell made two free throws and then a big jumper from just inside the 3-point arc for a 76-72 lead.
“I had the confidence in myself,” Kell said. “I knew it is a shot I can get to any time. My teammates gave me the confidence to make that space. He gave me space, I just rose up and I’m glad I made the shot for the team.”
Nevada’s Caleb Martin turned the ball over on a double dribble with 16.8 seconds to go and Pope made one of two free throws. Martin made a bucket with 5 seconds left before Kell sealed it with two free throws.
Nevada coach Eric Musselman, who had been jawing with the officials off and on, had to be restrained from going after the referees after the final buzzer.
Caleb Martin scored 22 and Cody Martin had 13 for Nevada.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Caroline, who added that the loss should nonetheless give the Wolf Pack some momentum going into the conference tourney.
“Now we feel we have to win the conference tournament, so we’re playing in desperation mode,” he said.
SDSU’s three seniors had a hand in giving the Aztecs the lead for good. With the score tied at 40 after Caleb Martin buried a 3-pointer 2 minutes into the second half, Pope hit a jumper and Rooks a tip-in. After Jeremy Hemsley made one of two free throws, Kell hit a long 3 for a 48-42 lead with 15:46 to go.
Matt Mitchell and Pope hit 3s and redshirt freshman Jalen McDaniels had a slam dunk off a pass from Kell to help the Aztecs to 63-54 lead.
San Diego State took a 36-34 halftime lead after a spirited first 20 minutes.
“Caroline is a monster,” Dutcher said. “He played like an MVP tonight. He played sensational. When he is making the 3 he is really hard. Fantastic performance by him tonight and we were fortunate to get out with a win against a very good team.”
Nevada: The Wolf Pack gave the Aztecs everything they could handle despite playing only seven players. Nevada made only eight of 24 3-point attempts.
San Diego State: The Aztecs honored the three seniors before the game. Kell and Pope are the only two players left from their highly regarded recruiting class. Rooks was a graduate transfer from California.
Nevada plays Thursday against the winner of the No. 8 UNLV-No. 9 Air Force game on Wednesday.
San Diego State will face No. 4 seed Fresno State on Thursday.