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It's championship time: Aztecs' keys to beat the Lobos

This is how SDSU can win this afternoon's MWC title game against rival UNM.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

No. 8 San Diego St. Aztecs (29-3, 16-2 MWC) vs. No. 20 New Mexico Lobos (26-6, 15-3 MWC)

When: Saturday, March 15, 2014, 6 p.m. ET, 3 p.m. PT

Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, Nev.


Radio: SDSU broadcast is on The Mighty 1090 AM. UNM broadcast is on KKOB-AM 770.

Last meeting: UNM beat the Aztecs for 28 minutes of the game in front of a stunned Viejas Arena. You know the story for the last 12 minutes: SDSU Coach Steve Fisher implemented the 1-3-1 zone, Xavier Thames scored 10 points, Dwayne Polee II stole the ball four times and the Aztecs outscored the Lobos 26-7 to win in front of their eardrum-crushing home crowd. With the win, SDSU took the regular season MWC crown.

Yesterday, SDSU beat UNLV to reach the MWC Tournament championship game. The Aztecs and Rebels traded blows throughout the first half and SDSU led 29-24 at halftime. But an early second-half 12-0 run put SDSU up for good and the red-and-black won 59-51. Thames played his second straight game with 15 or more points and 5 or more assists, scoring 17 with six assists. MWC Sixth Man of the Year Polee stole the show, though. He knocked down three 3-pointers and went 7-8 from the charity stripe en route to a season-high 18-points. The 6'7" junior also had three steals, including a crucial steal with 43 seconds left to stomp the Rebels' comeback attempt.

Now the stage is set. SDSU will face its season rival UNM for the MWC Tournament title. TNT and CBS Sports' Reggie Miller said what a lot of people were thinking at the end of the March 8 game between these two: he meant no disrespect to the other MWC teams, but he couldn't wait to watch the rubber match showdown between SDSU and UNM in the MWC Tournament championship game. Both teams are playing their basketball of the year. Both teams are healthy and at full strength. The Thomas & Mack will be rocking with about 10,000 Lobo fans and 5,000 Aztec fans. This one will be fun, folks.

Here's how SDSU can be greedy and win two MWC titles in one season:

Play Polee 25-plus minutes

After not playing against Arizona and playing only six minutes against Kansas, Polee has become the OKC-James Harden of the MWC. In fact, Fisher identified Polee as his "sixth starter" after yesterday's game against UNLV. When Polee checks into the game, he both energizes his teammates and immediately fuels the SDSU fans who want to see him play 40 minutes per game. But he's much more than an energy guy. Other than Thames, Polee has been the most consistently productive player in the second half of conference play. Since SDSU' loss at Wyoming, Polee has averaged 9.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals in 24.3 minutes per game. Playing Polee 25-plus minutes will also give Fisher and his staff more opportunities to implement the 1-3-1 zone that stifled UNM on March 8. Polee runs the point of the 1-3-1 zone like nobody else on the Aztec roster could because of his sheer length, quickness and instinct for the ball. It's plain and simple: SDSU is a better team with Polee on the floor.

Hog the offensive boards

That's a big reason why SDSU handled UNLV in the semifinals. The Aztecs grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, almost half of the Rebels' 29 total rebounds. SDSU converted those rebounds to 11 second-chance points. This afternoon's game will be a slugfest: two teams literally smashing each other in the paint to assert their dominance. As a result, it won't be very easy to score. If the Aztecs can grab an offensive board here and there, they can discourage the Lobo defense with scrappy tip-in baskets. Now, this is much easier said than done. Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk clog the paint very efficiently. However, neither of them can jump like Josh Davis. SDSU needs Davis to fly high tonight like he did in his 13-rebound performance against Utah State. Fisher says his team's goal is to rebound half of its misses, which it did against UNLV. Let's see if it happens today.

Flex its depth

SDSU's bench has scored 53 points in the first two games of the tournament, while UNM's has scored just 17 (all against Fresno State). The Aztecs have a pronounced advantage against the Lobos when the second units enter the game. Led by Polee, Aqeel Quinn and a recently improving Matt Shrigley, SDSU's second unit sometimes plays even better than the first unit. Fisher utilizes his deep bench to spread minutes across his roster--much more so than UNM Coach Craig Neal can afford to do. Just look at the numbers: UNM starters average 30.1 minutes per game, whereas SDSU starters average just 27.6 minutes per game. It's the third game in three days for these teams, so legs will be tired. Therefore, second units will be key and the Aztecs have a decided edge in that category.

The game starts at 6 p.m. ET and 3 p.m. PT, folks. Clear your schedule. You don't want to miss this game.