The San Diego State Aztecs — who were playing their third game in six days, including their second after squeaking out a double-overtime thriller 48 hours earlier — survived once again.
This time, it was to the reeling Nevada Wolf Pack in Reno, Nev. Nevada made a torrid second-half comeback that came down to the final 10 seconds in one of the more thrilling Mountain West games of the season. The Aztecs earned the 79-78 victory, rejecting two Nevada shots and batting another pass away over the final nine seconds, living by the remarkable defensive identity they’ve seemingly perfected.
But it didn’t come easy.
San Diego State strung together a 10-2 run to take the three-point halftime lead and carried that momentum into the second half. It outscored Nevada 23-8 over the first eight minutes of the half.
With the courtesy of a ferocious 1-2-2 full-court press, aggressive trapping and stringing together productive offensive possessions, Nevada sliced the once 18-point deficit to one — capped by Desmond Cambridge’s contested corner triple with 15 seconds remaining, mere moments after missing a deep attempt from above the break down two.
An errant SDSU pass — its season-high 19th turnover of the night — rewarded Nevada the rock with nine seconds to go. Both of Grant Sherfield’s shot attempts within the first 8.8 seconds were rejected by Nathan Mensah, the conference’s top shot-blocker, and athletic wing Keshad Johnson.
Sherfield’s SLOB (sideline out of bounds) lob attempt to Warren Washington with 0.2 seconds on the timer was batted away by a slew of Aztec defenders, ending the Wolf Pack’s comeback effort in what would’ve been the most thrilling victory of their season if the result was inverted.
“You can’t fault the guys’ effort. They had tremendous effort,” Nevada head coach Steve Alford said after the game. “It was really good to see, when we were down 18 (points) with 12 (minutes) to go, and got all the way back with a chance to win in the end. That’s why they’re an elite defense; we never got a shot off in the last 10 seconds. So you got to give them a lot of credit, but I thought our guys really fought and we had a lot of guys do a lot of good things in this game.”
The Aztecs held Nevada to 37.7 percent, though it canned nine triples (on 22 attempts), one fewer than it did in their previous meeting in Feb. Conversely, SDSU nailed 53.1 percent of its attempts, including 35.7 percent from 3-point range.
Grant Sherfield tallied 30 points — his second 30-point outing of the season, one point shy of tying his career high — on 9-of-19 shooting from the floor and 3-of-8 percent from distance, adding seven assists with a steal. Cambridge, the lone senior honored on senior night, posted 12 points on 3-of-12 shooting, racking up a team-high four steals with six rebounds, two assists and a block.
Cambridge really appreciated the reception from the 8,173 fans inside Lawlor Events Center Saturday night, noting it was “really rejuvenating.”
“We had a good fan turnout,” he said. “Everyone was on their feet and it was a great experience to be apart of. At my last school (Brown University), the gym was maybe a-fourth of the size of here. Being out there, seeing all those people there supporting me and supporting us — it was a great feeling.”
Washington, in his fourth game back of injury, notched his fourth double-double of the season, tallying 11 points and 10 boards. Baker added 11 points as well on 3-of-7 shooting.
Both teams committed a combined 47 (!) fouls that translated into 58 (!) combined free throw attempts (Nevada went 23-30 from the charity stripe). The Pack out-rebounded the Aztecs by two (36-34) and scored two more second-chance from its counterpart (15-13), though it recorded just 10 fewer points in the paint (24-14).
Matt Bradley led the Aztecs in scoring with 24 points on 6-of-10 shooting, including 11-of-12 from the free-throw line, to go along with six boards. Trey Pulliam had 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting with four of SDSU’s nine dimes.
Lamont Butler had 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting with a pair of triples. Johnson added 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting with six rebounds, three blocks and one steal.
“[Our team] had 16 offensive rebounds to their eight — I would have taken that at the start of the game. We out-rebounded them by two and they’re an elite rebounding team; we only turned the ball over 12 times with their pressure and we turned them over 19 ... It’s just they shot 53 percent from the field; we shot 37 and ended up being the difference was that we just got down too far.”
The Wolf Pack conclude the regular season at 12-17, losing their last four and 10 of their last 13. San Diego State heads into the Mountain West Tournament at 21-7 and winners of 10 of its last 11.
Nevada is locked in as the 8-seed for the Tournament in Las Vegas and will play No. 9-seeded New Mexico in the conference’s first game on Wednesday, March 9 at 11 a.m. PT. By virtue of earning the 3-seed, San Diego State will play the winner of No. 6 Fresno State and No. 11 San Jose State on March 10 at 8:30 p.m. PT.
Baker’s triple gave Nevada the early 12-8 advantage. Washington’s left-handed hook widened the Pack lead to 18-13 with 8:51 rmeaining in the first half.
Both teams struggled to knock down a majority of their attempts to begin the game, combining for 11 field goals on their first 30 attempts — a 36.7 percent rate.
Sherfield’s jumper followed by his step-back 3-pointer gave Nevada the 29-25 advantage with 4:01 left before halftime. SDSU concluded the final four minutes on an 11-4 run to take the 36-33 lead heading into the break. The Aztecs shot 50.0 percent (12-24), while Nevada shot 40.0 percent and 42.9 percent from 3-point range.
Sherfield (17 points) accounted for over half of Nevada’s 33 first-half points, converting on six of his 11 first-half attempts. Both teams combined to commit 22 fouls — 11 apiece — and shot 25 combined free throws (20 makes).
An 8-2 Aztec run out of the break — capped by back-to-back Pulliam jumpers — made it 44-35, prompting a Wolf Pack timeout. Bradley’s triple widened it to 49-37, its first double digit lead of the game.
Chad Baker-Mazara’s three-point play increased it to 59-41 — its largest lead of the game — with 12:03 to go. Sherfield’s jumper followed by Washington’s hook cut the deficit to eight with 4:30 remaining.
Two triples from Baker and Cambridge trimmed it to one with under 45 seconds left, but ultimately the Pack couldn’t get the last laugh due to stout Aztec defense to put them over the top.
Next up: Nevada will play New Mexico in the 8-9 game of the MWC Tournament on Wednesday at 11 a.m. PT; it will available to stream on the Mountain West Network. Nevada beat the Lobos 79-70 in their first meeting of the season on New Year’s Day — the Pack’s first conference game of the season.