They did it again.
Second-seeded Colorado State overcame a 13-point deficit against sixth-seed San Diego State to defeat the Aztecs 71-63 late Friday night to earn a trip to the Mountain West Championship Game. It was the third time the Rams have overcome a 13-point or more deficit against SDSU this season and won.
The remarkable comeback win is yet another in a saga that has turned into a rather historic season for the Rams, who have played much of the year with just seven scholarship players.
CSU was led once again by MWC Player of the Year Gian Clavell, who toughed out 21 points, many of which came while being guarded by Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Dakarai Allen.
"Anytime we're down by any margin we feel like we can come back and win," Clavell said after the win. "That's just any team. But, yeah, we always say, stay with it, chip away and just one basket at a time."
The first half was one the Rams would like to forget, as the Aztecs jumped out to a 15-2 lead, thanks to an up-tempo transition offense, strong defense and a turnover-heavy opening segment from the Rams. First team all-Mountain West selections Clavell and Emmanuel Omogbo combined for 7 first half turnovers. The Rams had 9 total for the half and were out-rebounded by SDSU 18-12. Yet the Rams were able to shoot nearly 43 percent from the field and make 9-of-13 free throws to only trail SDSU 36-30 at the half.
It was a sloppy opening half of basketball for the Rams, but they were able to regain composure coming out of the break. CSU trailed by as many as eight points, but thanks to hot shooting from Clavell and tough rebounding from Omogbo, CSU finally took its first lead of the game at the 6:31 mark of the second half on a Prentiss Nixon lengthy floater from the left wing.
Big three-pointers from Clavell, Omogbo and J.D. Paige began to put the game out of reach for San Diego State, who had no answer for CSU's clutch perimeter shots. Clavell finished with 21 points and one rebound, but didn't turn the ball over in the second half. CSU's vocal leader played all 40 minutes in a game that concluded well into Saturday morning.
Omogbo racked up 16 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. It was his 19th double-double of the season, putting him alone in first place all-time in CSU history with most double-doubles in a season. Washington Wizards forward Jason Smith previously held the record with 18.
Nixon had an important 16 points and 7 rebounds, while Paige was the fourth Ram to finish in double figures with 11 points. Big shots and shut down defense enabled CSU to claw back into the game, but ultimately it was the collective mental toughness of the team that guided them to victory after a poor start.
"We'll talk about today's game and give San Diego State all the credit in the world," Rams head coach Larry Eustachy said. "They came out and forced us to turn it over. We couldn't keep them off the boards. They had the majority of their points in the first half off of our turnovers that they converted or off of offensive rebounds.
"And then give our guys credit for responding and really doing what they said they were going to do during a timeout about not turning the ball over, keeping them off the boards and it was a terrific effort. And we thought that San Diego would get tired because it was their third game . And these guys bought into what we were telling them and they just stuck with it. It worked out perfect."
The Rams will play top-seeded Nevada today at 4 p.m. MT on CBS. In all likelihood, only the winner will earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament, as many analysts have speculated that the Mountain West is a one-bid league this year.