Could it be deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra supposedly said.
The last time the Mountain West Conference Tournament was held in Las Vegas in 2003, the CSU Rams ran the table win and qualify for the NCAA tournament. Thursday night CSU’s current team took the first step in following in those footprints delivering a 69-64 upset win over third-seeded San Diego State.
The 2003 Rams were seeded sixth in the tourney, just as this year’s version, and the team is embracing that coincidence.
“That was our main focus for this game. Our coaches have been stressing that if the 2003 team could do it, so why not us,” said Ram forward Jason Smith, who recorded his seventh straight double-double by scoring 13 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.
The Rams were laden with foul trouble, especially when Smith picked up his fourth foul of the game, going to the bench with 10:15 left in the game and the Rams trailing 43-49.
Instead of buckling without their star, the Rams, and especially Stuart Creason stepped up.
Creason, who was also in foul trouble throughout the game, scored 10 of his 19 points after picking up his fourth foul with 9:13 to go, but he stayed aggressive despite the foul trouble.
“They got him (Jason Smith) into foul trouble. I figured I would return the favor and just go at them as hard as I could and I think it worked out,” said Creason, who was unaware until after the game that he had played 39 of the 40 minutes in the game, a career high.
While Creason held the Rams together, Smith tried to be a leader from the bench, and when he finally got back into the game with 4:23 left and the Rams ahead by two, his clutch scoring and relentless rebounding swayed the game.
Smith converted offensive put-backs on two occasions with the game on the line, the last with 59 seconds remaining, where he was able to add a free throw to give the Rams a 67-62 lead.
The Aztecs could not find any offense in the last minute, as Brandon Heath, who was the leading scorer for both teams with 20 points in the game, air-balled a three-pointer, after which two Ram free throws sealed the game.
The Rams now are faced with beating UNLV, the same opponent the 2003 team beat in the championship game.
The Runnin’ Rebels demolished the Rams last Saturday in the Thomas and Mack Arena 65-47, the same arena where this game will be played at 9:30 MST. The game will be available on CSTV.
Despite the Rams being labeled as “giant killers” by some of the media, Rams’ coach Dale Layer knows UNLV won’t be scared after the last contest.
“I don’t know that we were much of a giant killer last Saturday here. They (UNLV) were awfully good. This is their home court,” he said following the game.
The loss for Aztecs likely knocked them from contention for the NCAA Tournament into the NIT.
Matthew Pucak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.