Viejas Arena- San Diego, California
An hour before tip-off, the players together as a team spread themselves out across the court to do a team stretch. A normal pre-game routine, but it also displays a common theme for the San Diego State Aztecs season. Missing players. On Saturday, it was Adam Seiko and Joshua Tomaic who were out. But another common theme for the Aztecs this season has been the next man up mentality.
To beat an undefeated Colorado State team that ranks 20th in the country would require an all-hands-on-deck effort. But in a game where the Rams were in the bonus with 10 minutes left in the first half and five Aztecs had two or more fouls at halftime, someone had to shine.
Matt Bradley rose to the occasion.
After a first half featuring 14 points on an efficient 5-0f-9 shooting, the rim only got wider. He opened the second half with 10 points on only four shots. He finished the game with 26 points and was a big reason for the Aztecs to claim a 79-49 dominating win.
“Matt Bradley was sensational,” Coach Dutcher said in the press conference.
Offensively, there was also a coalition of effort from Chad Baker-Mazara, Keshad Johnson, Lamont Butler, and Aguek Arop, who all finished in double figures.
On the other side of the court, one thing is for sure. The Aztecs’ defense is no joke.
The fans at Viejas Arena get spoiled with SDSU’s defense. The fans get a free car wash from Soapy Joes if the opposing team scores under 60 points. Colorado State comes into the game averaging 82 points per game, so the fans most likely expected a dirty car after the game.
However, the suffocating SDSU defense deflects passes, covers passing lanes, and makes open shots feel contested. The Rams came into the game with the 2nd best shooting percentage in D-1 from beyond the arc. The Aztecs, with their 8th best defense according to Kenpom, held the Rams to 3-0f-20 from the outside. The Rams shot an abysmal 28% from the field.
This was the first time in Aztec history in the Mountain West that the Aztecs have held back-to-back opponents to under 30% shooting from the field.
“You can’t take a break against (Colorado State), they’re so gifted offensively, but today we finished the job,” Dutcher said.
The one area where the Aztecs can’t play defense is the free-throw line. The refs turned the game into a whistle fest. This certainly benefits a Rams team that came into the game with the 3rd best free throw percentage in D-1 at almost 81%. On 24 Aztec fouls, the Rams shot 22-of-26 from the charity stripe. The Aztecs also partook in the free points as they were 15-for-20 from the line.
“It’s a hard game to officiate. It was really physical. I thought they could’ve called 14 more fouls,” Dutcher said.
The Rams returned almost all of their key pieces from their team last year that lost in the NIT Final Four and defeated the Aztecs at Viejas. Besides the Rams team’s success and the similar roster, there’s one thing that stands out as a similarity between CSU’s last two teams.
No road games.
COVID last season limited fan attendance. The most opposing fans Colorado State played in front of was in Laramie, Wyoming, where the Cowboys had around 2,000 fans. This season, the Rams are yet to play a road game. Therefore, the Rams are playing their first true road game in two seasons in one of the most difficult places to win in college basketball.
A tall task when Viejas Arena is rocking.
“The atmosphere was awesome. They really got us going when it was close,” Butler said.
There was a lack of students in “The Show” due to them being on winter break, but the fans in their “white-out” theme still fueled momentum runs.
To start the game, Aguek Arop finally lifted the seal off the rim with the Aztec first made field goal with 12:45 remaining in the 1st half. This ignited a 9-0 run featuring a Baker-Mazara and one, a filthy hop-step by Butler, and an almost seven-minute field goal drought for the Rams.
At halftime, to keep the energy in the building, six Aztec hall-of-fame football players highlighted by Marshall Faulk took center court to speak about the opening of Snapdragon Stadium.
The Aztecs fed off the energy and exploded out of the half with an opening 11-2 run that featured eight points from Bradley, including two back-to-back threes. The Aztecs captured a double-digit lead and never looked back.
The highlight was two back-to-back Baker-Mazara break-away dunks with two minutes left in the game to blow the roof off the building.
“It gets us fired up hearing the crowd behind you,” Bradley said. “When you have not just your team behind you but the whole arena.”
Coming into the game, neither team was thrilled to have this game moved to today, two months early. Colorado State was attempting to add No. 8 ranked Arizona to their schedule. San Diego State was already prepared for Wednesday’s postponed game against Fresno State and was trying to reschedule that to today. But the Mountain West made the decision to move the game to today.
Both teams were also not 100% coming into the game.
This was the Rams’ second game in twenty-eight days. The Aztecs have been without both of their starting point guards on the floor for more than a month.
Rust was evident for both teams early on. In the opening seven minutes, the combined shooting for both teams was 3-for-15, and there was a combined six turnovers.
In the pre-game press conference, Coach Dutcher said, “when the schedule came out, and I saw that we weren’t playing (Colorado State) till February twice, I thought it was great for us.”
After a win today, Dutcher still sees a high ceiling for this Aztec team. He said, “the beauty of this team is that I still don’t know what we will be.”
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Two seasons ago, the Aztecs were the last undefeated team in the nation and had their 26 game win streak snapped at Viejas Arena. This season with the Rams as one of the last three undefeated teams remaining in the country, the Aztecs returned the favor to a conference foe.
Before today, in the last ten seasons, five Mountain West teams have come into Viejas Arena with a ranking. After today’s win, the Aztecs are now 6-0 in those games.
As the press conference ended, Dutcher said goodbye to both Bradley and Butler with a “be safe.” He was thrilled over the win, but the madness of COVID is still the first thing on his mind after the game.
Class of 2022 at San Diego State University. Communication major and pursuing a sports journalism profession. Season ticket holder of the SDSU MBB team since 2011. Fondest memory of Viejas Arena is Aztec legend, Dwayne Polee sparking a 19-1 run over New Mexico to win the MW Conference in 2014.