March 10, 2006
DENVER (AP) - Brandon Heath made the go-ahead 3-pointer with 36 seconds left Friday night and San Diego State improved its NCAA hopes with a 63-60 victory over UNLV in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament.
Heath, the player of the year in the conference, spotted up from near the top of the arc and swished the 3-pointer to give the top-seeded Aztecs (23-8) a 61-60 lead.
On the next possession, UNLV's Curtis Terry got called for walking on a jump-stop near the free-throw line. San Diego State's John Sharper followed with two free throws to put the Aztecs up by three with 6.3 seconds left.
San Diego State fouled Ricky Morgan on the next possession, but he missed the first free throw and the Rebels (17-13) never had a chance for the intentional miss and chance at a putback to tie.
Lon Kruger's fourth-seeded team will wait to see if its 17 wins are good enough to earn an invite to the NIT for the fifth straight year.
The Aztecs, meanwhile, are one win away from ensuring only the fifth trip to the NCAA tournament in the not-so-spectacular history of the program. Their latest win tied a record for victories in the Division I era at San Diego State and the Aztecs have already celebrated their first regular-season conference title since 1978.
Their RPI rating, however, is hovering in the 60s, which means they could very well need to win Saturday in the finals against the winner of the Utah-Wyoming semifinal - played later Friday night - to ensure a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Heath and all-conference forward Marcus Slaughter saved this game for the Aztecs after it appeared to be slipping away. Heath finished with 22 points and Slaughter had his second straight monster game - finishing with 16 points and 14 rebounds after a 17-point, 19-rebound day in a quarterfinal win over Colorado State.
More impressively, the duo scored every point for their team - save Sharper's two free throws at the tail end - over the final 7:37 to rally the Aztecs from a 49-46 deficit.
Led by solid inside play by Dustin Villepigue and nice floor work by Jo'Van Adams, the Rebels turned a seven-point halftime deficit into a 41-37 lead about halfway through the second half.
UNLV played great defense, too, denying San Diego State a basket in the paint for the first 10 minutes of the half. But Slaughter made four free throws and Heath hit a pair of 12-foot runners to put San Diego State ahead 56-53. From there, it was a back-and-forth game.
On the game-winner, Heath showed persistence, spotting up after missing an open look on the previous possession. He went 9-for-21 from the floor and only 2-for-9 from 3-point range, but made the shot when it was most important.
Adams had 14 points for the Rebels and Morgan scored 13.