LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 09: Deshawn Stephens #23 of the San Diego State Aztecs celebrates after the team's 79-69 win over the Colorado State Rams in a semifinal game of the Conoco Mountain West Conference Basketball tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center March 9, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
It's unusual that the San Diego State Aztecs would have so much difficulty finishing off the Boise State Broncos, and then so much ease defeating the Colorado State Rams. But I suppose that's just how they roll.
The Aztecs often play to their opponent's level, and last night at the Thomas & Mack Center, they took on a very good opponent in the Rams. It would stand to reason then that they would play very well themselves. They did. Team standouts Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley put up 19 and 17 points, respectively. But as important as Franklin and Tapley were in advancing the Aztecs to the Mountain West Tournament Championship, the win should really be credited to three other players - one starter, and two bench players.
In previewing the game, I mentioned the importance of the Aztec bench. In Thursdays game against Boise State, all Aztec starters, besides Tim Shelton, played more than 36 minutes. To remain fresh, it would be necessary for Coach Steve Fisher to sub guys out. Due in part to this strategy, and the fact that Jamaal Franklin had two fouls after just four minutes, Steve Fisher indeed went to his bench early and often.
Two bench players - Garrett Green and Deshawn Stephens - stepped up big for the Aztecs. Green played 24 minutes, and shot 100% from the floor (4-4) with one three. He totaled 10 points. Deshawn Stephens, an unsung asset for the Aztecs who has gotten better as each week passes by, proved to be the difference maker in the game. The Aztecs have had issues with controlling the boards all year, but not last night. In just 21 minutes of play, Stephens led both teams with 9 rebounds. He was a force that prevented almost any second-chance shots for the Rams. The Aztecs dominated the rebound war 37-23.
Of course, having bench players step up in a big game is just icing on the cake if your starters are clicking. In addition to Franklin and Tapley, James Rahon played very well, picking up 15 points. If they can continue playing this well, they'll be a tough match up for anyone in the NCAA Tournament.
The Rams, who look like an 11-seed for the NCAA Tournament, saw great performances from their bench as well. In 33 minutes of play, Jesse Car put up 17 points, second only to Dorian Green's 20. Dwight Smith also played well, with 12 points in just 18 minutes.
The Rams will await their fate on Selection Sunday. The Aztecs, meanwhile, have one more game to play before the NCAA Tournament. They will take on the New Mexico Lobos for the tournament Championship at 5PM MT tonight.