No. 7 San Diego State 74, UNLV 72
San Diego State is getting one more shot at BYU — thanks to D.J. Gay.
The senior point guard, dubbed the team's "Most Important Player," by coach Steve Fisher, sank a short jumper with 4.9 seconds left to send the Aztecs past UNLV in the semifinals.
The defending tournament champions secured their third straight title game appearance when UNLV's Tre'Von Willis was off target on a fadeaway, contested 3-point attempt at the buzzer.
Eighth-ranked BYU (30-3) is the only team that's beaten the Aztecs (31-2) this season, winning 71-58 in Provo, Utah, and 80-67 in San Diego.
Gay finished with 15 points for the second-seeded Aztecs. Kawhi Leonard led four players in double figures with 18 points, pulled down eight rebounds and played the last 4 minutes with four fouls.
Fisher's trust in Gay never wavered even as his floor leader had lost his shooting touch in the quarterfinals 24 hours earlier.
"You could tell when D.J. made that first basket — at least I could — that he was going to be playing with confidence and hopefully his shot would fall, and it did tonight," Fisher said.
"D.J. is a tremendous competitor. He had been in a bit of a shooting slump obviously. I think he was 1 for 9 last night, hadn't shot the ball well. I think he got a little bit down.
"But D.J. is a winner. You want a guy like that on your side. I had a feeling that D.J. would have himself ready to play a really good game and a really smart game tonight, and he did just that."
Chace Stanback led third-seeded UNLV with 22 points and Willis added 19.
San Diego State and BYU shared the conference regular-season crown, with the Cougars gaining the top seed on the basis of their stunning sweep.
The Cougars outlasted New Mexico in the other semifinal behind a career-high 52 points from Jimmer Fredette.
Aztecs forward Billy White was astounded watching Fredette's fireworks Friday night.
"He's just amazing. It's just impossible to stop him," White said. "We're just going to try to go back to our game plan and see what we did wrong. Obviously we lost to them twice. We just got to see what happened in those two losses. We just got to try to contain him."
Actually, the Aztecs felt they did that in their second loss to the Cougars.
"The first game at BYU they kind of ran us off the floor, kind of out rebounded us," White said. "The second game, we let them get wide-open shots. We kind of contained Jimmer, but we just left other people open."
Gay said he might have a tip to offer up for the championship.
"I would say try and not let them make 14 3-pointers again," he said, chuckling.
"Just defend, not have silly turnovers, just play hard," offered Malcolm Thomas.
The Aztecs had to survive their third tough game with the Runnin' Rebels (24-8), whom they beat by six points twice this season.
"It's pretty frustrating because we know we can compete with them," Rebels guard Anthony Marshall said. "You go into games like that expecting a battle. Those are the type of games you're looking for. To come up short three times in a row, it's very disappointing.
"We're looking forward to the tournament now. Games like this get you ready for the atmosphere and battles like that in the NCAA tournament."
Leonard hit three straight jumpers to give the Aztecs a 65-59 lead at the 6-minute mark, but he picked up his fourth foul with 4:17 left and White sank two of three free throws, then got a breakaway basket at the other end to tie it at 66.
Stanback's free throws with 2:53 left gave UNLV, which trailed by a dozen in the second half, a 68-66 lead.
But the Aztecs are great closers — they've won 43 straight games when leading at the 5-minute mark.
Thomas sank two free throws to tie it, then Chase Tapley sprinted downcourt for a finger-roll layup after White blocked Oscar Bellfield's lay-in attempt, giving San Diego State a 70-68 lead.
After Marshall tied it again with two free throws, then blocked White's shot, UNLV called time out with 1:17 left and the game tied at 70.
Stanback's jumper from the top of the circle gave the Rebels a 72-70 lead, but Thomas tied it one last time with a pair of free throws.
After a UNLV timeout with 35 seconds left, Bellfield turned the ball over and, as Fisher had instructed during the break in action, the Aztecs cleared out the lane for Gay to penetrate. He swished the shot the same way he did earlier in the season when he hit a buzzer-beater at Colorado State on Feb. 2 in a 56-54 win.
"When they called the timeout, Coach Fisher made it clear that he wasn't going to use a timeout. He told me to go get the ball, call for a ball screen, and make something happen," Gay said. "They've been playing the ball screen pretty hard all night. I knew if I faked right, went left, they would bite on it most likely. That's what I did. I saw an open lane and I went for the floater."
Duke coach said that after winning his second gold medal in men's basketball would be his Team USA finale. That may not be the case anymore.
CBT: Turning the page on the Mike Rice scandal, Rutgers hired Louisville's Julie Hermann as athletic director on Wednesday. But, Hermann has a prior scandal of her own.
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