BYU, San Diego State give Mountain West hoops its landmark day

When it got four teams into the NCAA tournament for the first time last year, the Mountain West's hoops profile appeared to be on the doorstep of joining the ranks of the so-called 'Big Six' conferences.

But only two of them got out of the first round in 2010, and none advanced past the second.

It was a lost opportunity.

It was there again on Saturday, and this time was seized.

BYU and San Diego State pulled off wins that couldn't have been more different, but they'll both be heading into Sweet Sixteen, giving the MWC a representative in the second weekend for the first time since UNLV did so in 2007.

With another explosion from Jimmer Fredette and an outstanding showing from his supporting cast, BYU slammed Gonzaga, 89-67, moving past the second round for the first time since 1981 after its last 15 trips were ended in the first weekend.

What's made the Cougars look most vulnerable in recent weeks with the absence of suspended sophomore forward Brandon Davies was the inability of those around Fredette to consistently hit outside shots to help offset a disadvantage in the paint.

But this time, while Jimmer worked his magic to the tune of 34 points, seven 3-pointers and six assists, sidekicks Jackson Emery and Noah Hartsock combined to go 6-of-11 from deep. Meanwhile, Emery and Kyle Collinsworth accounted for six of BYU's 10 steals. Those covered up a 34-23 disadvantage on the boards. {YSP:MORE}

In other words, it was vintage BYU in a game that, oddly enough, it was not favored to win. It will now take on Florida next Thursday in New Orleans. The Cougars and Gators met in last year's NCAA tournament opening round, with BYU escaping with a 99-92 double-overtime victory in Oklahoma City behind 37 points from — you guessed it — The Jimmer.

Before the Cougars rolled, the Aztecs simply survived in a 71-64 double-OT squeaker against Temple.

After trailing by as many as 11 points in the first half, the Owls clawed back in a slowed-down final 20 minutes, and SDSU looked the part of an inexperienced tournament team late in both regulation and the first overtime. No one seemed to want to take the big shot, and the offensive execution looked panicked.

But in the second extra frame, a few big buckets stood up for the Aztecs thanks to a clutch swat by Malcolm Thomas in the final minute with SDSU clinging to a 3-point lead.

Their historic 34-win season now lives on after the Aztecs notched the program's first two NCAA tournament wins this weekend in Tucson. They'll again be playing close to home, this time in Anaheim, against UConn. Given their experience of facing Jimmer three times this season — once successfully, twice not so much — it should be interesting to see how SDSU's normally sweltering defense handles Kemba Walker.

Combined, the two performances made for the biggest day in Mountain West basketball history.

The minor, bittersweet sting for the league lying under it all is the fact that BYU is on its way out, set to join the WCC next season following the football-driven divorce from the MWC last summer.

Still, SDSU is set up for sustained winning ways, while both UNLV — bounced in surprising 73-62 fashion from the tourney by Illinois on Friday night — and New Mexico are both likely to be tournament teams next season.

But thanks to a landmark day on Saturday, the changing league will move forward with more basketball credibility than ever before.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for the Las Vegas Sun. Read his Rebels coverage and follow him on Twitter.

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