SAN DIEGO — When Jimmer Fredette first emerged from the tunnel at Viejas Arena more than an hour before tipoff on Saturday afternoon, San Diego State's infamous student section greeted the BYU star with a robust chorus of boos.
Fredette's reaction? A sly but unmistakable grin.
Even though Fredette would say after BYU's 80-67 victory that he blocked out the taunts and cat calls of the roaring San Diego State crowd, it was clear to everyone watching that he thrived on the hostility.
Each time the threat of a San Diego State rally sent the sellout crowd into a full-throated frenzy, Fredette helped BYU regain momentum, sometimes with a driving layup or feathery jumper and other times with a pinpoint pass out of a double team to an open shooter. The national player of the year favorite scored 25 points and dished out nine assists, punctuating his latest masterful performance by chucking the ball high in the air as time expired.
"I've never seen a guy who loves playing on the road as much as he does," BYU guard Charles Abouo said. "He just loves the hostility and he feeds off the energy from opposing crowds. Whether it's him blocking it out or him feeding off it, he does a tremendous job. He's as good as anyone."
The brilliant decision-making of Fredette and the opportunistic perimeter shooting of his teammates did more than just enable BYU to complete a season sweep of sixth-ranked San Diego State. Handing the Aztecs their first home loss of the season also gave the Cougars a one-game lead in the Mountain West title race and thrust them into contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Already No. 3 in the RPI and No. 7 in the AP Top 25 entering Saturday's game, BYU validated those gaudy numbers with one of its best performances of the season in front of a national TV audience. The Cougars have now swept Mountain West rivals San Diego State and UNLV and defeated Arizona, Utah State and Saint Mary's, an impressive enough collection of victories for Aztecs coach Steve Fisher to label BYU "Final Four-good" after Saturday's game.
"They are a really, really good basketball team, and they showed that again today," Fisher said. "When they had to make a basket, somebody made a basket and it was never the same somebody. That's the mark of a really good team."
It's a testament to the toughness and focus of BYU's players that they never let San Diego State creep any closer than seven points during the final 12 minutes despite an emotionally charged crowd worthy of one of the biggest games in the history of either program.
Hundreds of San Diego State students camped out for tickets earlier this week, an everyday occurrence at a national power like Duke or Kentucky but a rarity for an Aztecs program that has never won an NCAA tournament game.
Many San Diego State students donned Mormon missionary costumes complete with bike helmets, short-sleeved white button-down t-shirts and ties. Others waved cardboard signs bearing hand-written messages such as "Conference polygamy is also a sin" or the crude but funny "My Jimmer shoots from long range too."
BYU brushed aside those jabs just as easily as the Cougars did a San Diego State defense that has been among the nation's best this season.
Fearful that Fredette might erupt for 43 points the way he did in the first meeting between the Mountain West leaders, San Diego State geared its entire defense around keeping the BYU star in check. Whether it was 6-foot-8 Billy White or 6-foot-2 Chase Tapley guarding Fredette, there was always a help defender or two ready to trap him on a ball screen or clog the lane if he drove to the rim.
Fredette forced a handful of shots on his way to an 8-for-23 night from the field, but more often than not he read the defense properly and made the right decision.
When James Rahon sank a 3-pointer to pull San Diego State within 50-47, Fredette responded with one of his own and then a steal and outlet pass for a layup to push the lead back to eight. When San Diego State trimmed the deficit to seven a few minutes later, Fredette made a layup and drew a foul and then found Jackson Emery on the wing for a 3-pointer to increase the advantage to 13. And when San Diego State launched one final run to pull within eight with five minutes to go, Fredette drew another double team, noticed James Rahon cheating off his man in the corner and fired a pass to Charles Abouo for another momentum-killing 3-pointer.
"You just have to read what the defense gives you," Fredette said. "Obviously they started to just put two guys out on me and doubled me as soon as I came over half-court and that leaves a guy open. I gave up the ball and (my teammates) were sticking shots. They were paying for doubling me tonight."
BYU made 14 of 24 3-pointers, four apiece from Fredette and Abouo, three from forward Noah Hartsock, two from Emery and one from reserve guard Stephen Rogers. Four San Diego State players scored in double figures led by Kawhi Leonard's 17 points and 13 rebounds, but the Aztecs couldn't overcome 34.4 percent shooting in the second half.
If the slights of the crowd weren't enough inspiration for Fredette, he acknowledged he drew motivation from the perception that BYU wouldn't beat San Diego State a second time. He said he watched ESPN's College Game Day on Saturday morning and saw that most of the analysts picked San Diego State.
"Everyone thought we were probably going to lose this game," Fredette said. "They haven't watched us all year. That's why they said that. I was looking forward to playing the best game we could and fortunately we were able to win."