Aztecs capture huge resume building win at Laramie, Wyoming

Credit: Wyoming Athletics

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Credit: Wyoming Athletics

The importance of this game cannot be understated. The Aztecs are firmly on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. A win on the road at Wyoming, a team that is undefeated in Laramie, could be what the Aztecs need to punch their ticket to March Madness.

The smile on the Aztec player’s faces at the end of the game said it all. This game meant so much to the players. Aztecs win 71-66 and capture a huge resume-building win.

Coach Brian Dutcher joked after the game that they will enjoy the victory for the flight home, but then it is back to work tomorrow.

Dutcher recognized how critical every possession was. He was fuming at multiple questionable officiating calls. He called a timeout to yell at his team in the first half after two straight sloppy turnovers. He knew the game would go to the wire.

“It was just a hard-fought Mountain West game. They all go to the last two minutes,” Dutcher said.

It’s difficult to describe Matt Bradley’s first-half performance tonight. The commentators said he was in his bag. He was living in permanent heat check territory. He was in an inferno; he was shooting into a hula hoop.

He scored 20 first-half points. He made his first four threes. With Wyoming focused on his shooting, Bradley had fun with his playmaking. He drew double teams and found open shooters; he threw a wicked one-handed pass to Keshad Johnson for three and finished with four first-half assists.

He opened the second half with a logo three-pointer from the top of the key. But then it appeared he was fatiguing as he left multiple shots short at the rim. But he was still critical down the stretch. When Wyoming made the game within one possession, Bradley made a superb spin move to get two free throws, and he hit one of two to finish with a career-high 30 points. He also grabbed five rebounds.

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“Matt was sensational, he makes it look easy sometimes, but it’s not easy at all,” Dutcher said.

Bradley may have been the standout scorer, but Trey Pulliam was the cold-blooded killer. Bradley laid the groundwork, but Pulliam won the game.

Pulliam is back. He struggled after sitting out multiple weeks due to COVID. But he appeared to turn the corner in recent weeks. He recorded eight assists against Fresno State. He followed it up with 13 points against San Jose State, his most points this calendar year. Tonight may have been his best of the year. He made confident threes, but most importantly, he made clutch, timely buckets. He made a critical fadeaway jumper in the second half to end a five-minute Aztec field goal drought. He made a vital shot after Wyoming cut the Aztec lead to four. Then with a minute left in the game, he made a contested layup while taking contact. His highlight was his signature floater to ice the game. He finished with 14 points.

“Trey Pulliam, he was a beast tonight,” Bradley said.

“He carried us at the end last year. Trey played a really solid game and hit really meaningful shots,” Dutcher said.

The Aztec shooting in the first half was unreal. They scored 44 first-half points, the second most all season. They shot 54% from the field, 72% from three, and outrebounded the much taller Wyoming team.

But Wyoming would not go away in the first half. Four different players made a three. They shot 8-for-17 from beyond the arc in the first half. They shot 47% from the field and would not let the Aztecs build a big lead.

“Wyoming is no joke, especially in their arena,” Bradley said.

The second half was a different story. It was a defensive showdown. Both teams had field goal droughts over four minutes. The Cowboys shot 33% from the field. The Aztecs shot 30%.

Graham Ike and Hunter Maldonado are the leaders of this Cowboy team. Ike is averaging Mountain West player of the year numbers at 21 points and ten rebounds. He is a force inside, and the Aztec defense had their attention on him all night.

Ike struggled to find rhythm. The Aztec big men were stifling. He finished with 10 points on 4-for-12 shooting.

Nathan Mensah needs his flowers for his defensive performance. The preseason Mountain West defensive player of the year showed his dominance. He gave nothing easy to Ike. He kept up with Maldonado on his drives to the basket. He left everything on the court as he needed to walk up the court to end the game. He finished with two blocks, nine rebounds, and the 50% free throw shooter was perfect from the charity stripe in six critical attempts.

SDSU doubled every time Ike got the ball in the post. This is something they didn’t do when they faced Fresno State’s Orlando Robinson. This prevented Ike from shooting, and he turned the ball over, but when he passed out quickly, the Cowboys found their open three-point shooters.

The Cowboys made the double-team pay. They have shooters everywhere. In the first half, Jeremiah Oden made a three. Then Drake Jeffries hit a three, then another, Noah Reynolds and Brendan Wenzel added one. Wyoming made four straight threes, and the multitude of shooters had the Aztec defense looking lost.

Credit: Wyoming Athletics

Drake Jeffries came into the game shooting 42.6% from three. He cashed on all open threes. He made four in the first half, including a very difficult attempt over an Aztec defender as the first half ended. But he didn’t make a shot in the second half.

Hunter Maldonado is an all-around point guard for Wyoming. He averages 19 points, five rebounds, and six assists. He is a bit unique for a guard in that he’s 6’7 and would prefer to back defenders down in the post.

Maldonado saw many different bodies in front of him all night. He also saw double teams. He attempted to abuse his size in the post, but the smaller Aztec guards all held their ground well in the paint. But Maldonado found his opportunities to beat Aztecs off the dribble. He was an incredible playmaker. He finished with a triple-double. He had 13 points, 11 assists, 11 rebounds.

Playing at 7,220 feet, the highest elevation level in the nation, was a challenge for the Aztecs. Games in altitude have been difficult for SDSU as they are winless in their four attempts.

Against San Jose State, and for the last month, the Aztecs have relied on a full-court press. Not worried about the altitude fatigue, SDSU opened the game pressing. Lamont Butler led the charge staying in Maldonado’s face as he dribbled it up court. Dutcher clearly was worried about fatigue as Adam Seiko replaced him only three minutes into the game to lead the press. The first half featured many quick substitutions.

“Nate was gassed at the end,” Dutcher said. “I mean, everybody knew he was tying his tennis shoes three times because he wanted to take a break. If I was Coach Fisher, I would’ve kicked a cup of water over so they had to clean it up so he could catch his breath.”

Wyoming came into the game ranked 13th in the nation in denying three-pointers. Regardless of their defensive stats, the Aztecs opened the game, abusing the Cowboys from beyond the arc. In the first half, they were 10-for-14 from three.

The shooting was led by Matt Bradley and Adam Seiko. Bradley made his first four threes; Seiko made his first three attempts. The Aztecs finished 12-for-22 from three.

Wyoming is the eighth tallest team in the nation. They rank second in the conference in rebounding. Coming into the game, the Aztecs were 2-4 against teams ranked in the top 40 in height. They have been outrebounded in five of those games.

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Tonight, the Aztecs imposed their physicality and looked like the taller team. They outrebounded Wyoming by seven and won the offensive rebound battle.

“We’re really deep, and everybody’s happy,” Bradley said. “Everybody wants to keep playing. The sky is the limit for us, for real.”

With an Aztec win tonight, SDSU ties Wyoming and Colorado State in the loss column. If they end the season tied in losses, the Aztecs own the tiebreaker over the Cowboys as they have the only head-head win even though they may finish with less wins.

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