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Slow start sinks BYU's hopes for share of MWC title

Feb 25, 2007 - 4:09 AM SAN DIEGO (Ticker) -- Brigham Young failed to take advantage of the situation that Air Force presented to it.

Austin Ainge scored 17 points as the No. 22 Cougars had their chance to claim a share of the Mountain West Conference regular-season title denied with an 86-74 loss at San Diego State.

BYU (21-7, 11-3 MWC) could have recorded a share of the league crown after Air Force dropping a stunning decision on the road against lowly TCU, which snapped an 11-game losing streak.

However, it was the Aztecs (20-8, 9-5) that came out with a mission, building up a 19-point lead in the first half before holding on to beat a ranked foe at home for the second time in three games.

"We've had back-to-back-to-back - Air Force, Las Vegas, BYU - pretty impressive victories (at home)," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "We've guarded, competed hard, played together and had the outcome that San Diego State wants."

"We got off to a tough start and turned the ball over too many times," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "We dug ourselves a pretty deep hole, and had a hard time climbing out of it."

The reigning MWC Player of the Year, Brandon Heath scored 18 of his 30 points in the first half and Mohamed Abukar added 27 for San Diego State, which avenged an 80-58 loss to BYU on January 6 - its worst setback of the season.

"We're in a stage of the season right now where every game is a must win," Abukar said. "It's a home game against the No. 1 team in the conference, and obviously, a team that beat us the last time they faced us convincingly. So, obviously, we wanted to come out and be successful tonight and we did so in a convincing fashion."

Heath scored 12 points in an 18-0 run that gave the Aztecs a 22-4 lead with 12:54 left in the first half. The Cougars had seven turnovers in that span.

"It started with our defense," said Heath, who finished with four of his team's 12 steals. "We came out with high energy. We started out the first play with a dunk and got the crowd involved, and it's always great when you can get the crowd involved. We let our defense dictate our offense tonight.

"When you start games like that with defense in mind first, you win a lot of games."

Leading, 43-25, at the break, San Diego State saw BYU chip back into the game in the second half behind some stellar 3-point shooting.

Finishing 9-of-17 (53 percent) from the arc after intermission, the Cougars closed within 67-57 on a 3-pointer by Jonathan Tavernari with 6:27 remaining.

BYU had chance to move closer after a steal by Tavernari on the next defensive sequence, but the freshman forward committed a turnover of his own moments later.

The Aztecs came back with a three-point play by Abukar, and the senior forward completed another for a 75-62 advantage with 3:29 remaining.

In all, the Cougars finished with 19 turnovers, leading to 20 points for the Aztecs.

"I think turnovers were the big key," Rose said. "You can overcome 19 turnovers, but when 12 of the 19 are steals, it's tough to defend. Transition was key to the game. They were really quick to the ball tonight."

Ainge, who finished 5-of-8 on 3-pointers to enable BYU's second-half push, finished with six turnovers.

"I take full responsibility," he said. "We can't win when I have six turnovers and we start off the game like that. That's a good team that is playing really well." Tavernari scored 18 points off the bench and Keena Young had 16 for BYU, which had an eight-game winning streak snapped.

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    BYU (22) 25 49 74
    SAN DIEGO ST 43 43 86 FINAL

    Feb 24 8:06 PM

    BYU (22) 25

    Feb 24 6:55 PM