Last season, San Diego State lost two games in a row to Utah State and fell to 3-3 in the conference, but they ended up winning 14 straight games and the Mountain West Conference.
After losing to Utah State again last game, Viejas Arena decided to remind the fans with a good omen of what is possibly to come by giving out replica 2021 Mountain West championship rings to all the fans in attendance.
The Aztec players decided to remind themselves of what they are capable of through pummeling New Mexico. They led wire-to-wire and won 72-47.
“This was a critical game for us to try to build momentum going into Colorado State,” coach Brian Dutcher said after the game.
New Mexico is a tale of two teams. On one side of the floor, there is offensive firepower. Three double-digit scorers, average 77 points per game, and lead the conference in threes per game at 10. The Lobos shoot threes in bunches as the whole bench yells “layup” on their three-point attempts. The coaches design a play called “money,” which gets a shot open beyond the arc.
But SDSU’s defense makes opponents go broke shooting.
It is difficult for the Lobos to survive on out-shooting the Aztecs when SDSU’s defense is the best the Lobos have faced all season. The SDSU defense was itching to assert their dominance after giving up 75 points in their last game against Utah State. A team that ranked second in the conference in points scored per game was suffocated. The Lobos finished shooting 31% from the field and had 20 turnovers.
“(Defense) was a big emphasis for us,” Matt Bradley said, “it felt really good to play our style of basketball.” Keshad Johnson added, “Utah State, we weren’t playing like ourselves. Ever since we’ve been back in San Diego, we’ve been focused.”
The Lobo’s defense is the other side of the equation, and it struggles. Their defense ranks 263rd, the second-worst that SDSU faced all season. The Aztecs scored 78 against UCSD earlier in the year, who rank 275th.
On Monday, the Aztecs didn’t match their season-high total, but they shot 45% from the field and 45% from the three-point line.
The Aztecs went an entire 40 minutes against Utah State without recording an offensive rebound, not a single second-chance point. It took only 19 seconds for SDSU to grab its own miss, and Nathan Mensah put it back up for the team’s first second-chance points. They finished the game with six offensive rebounds.
“We had zero (offensive) rebounds in our last game. I still think that’s an area we got to be better,” Dutcher said. “The most important opponent is ourselves, trying to get better ourselves better and make corrections.”
Two years ago, the last time the Aztecs played the Lobos, Matt Mitchell had an iconic dunk over a Lobos defender in front of Bill Walton, which made the SportsCenter Top-10. Trey Pulliam, who was a part of that team, wanted to create his own highlight as he threw an alley-oop pass from half-court to Johnson, who came down with a monster slam.
“I naturally do whatever comes to mind at the time, and I have God-given talent,” Johnson said regarding what goes through his head when dunking.
Johnson was dominant. He flexed his biceps after scoring, flew across the court to tip passes, and was too big for the Lobos defense. He finished the game with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
“Keshad is just a high-energy guy, always with a high motor,” Dutcher said.
Bradley came into the night averaging 19 points per game in conference play. In his last two games, he shot 18-for-23 (78%) from the field. Tonight, he was slightly less efficient but still was impactful as he finished with 14 points on 6-for-13 shooting.
“You know, I’m happy, my teammates, they trusted me throughout the slump,” Bradley said when asked how he’s feeling about his game.
After combining for four points on 2-of-11 shooting with nine turnovers last game, Lamont Butler and Trey Pulliam were better on Monday. Pulliam only had three points on three attempts, but he was impactful on the defensive end as he drew back-to-back charges in the first half and even soared for a rebound over the Lobos seven-foot center. Butler finished the game with nine points.
After suffering a hip injury against Utah State, Aguek Arop did not suit up for the Aztecs.
“We’re just trying to be cautious with AG,” Dutcher said. “I would hope he would be ready for Colorado State.”
SDSU has dominated the Lobos as of late. They are the first team in the last 42 seasons to defeat New Mexico by 20 or more points in three consecutive meetings.
After SDSU had their games postponed against Wyoming and Fresno State, today, they were moved to the final week of the season. The Aztecs now finish difficult to end the year as they have three games in six days with travel to Wyoming and Nevada. Fresno State will now be SDSU’s senior night.
“I think it’s too many games at the end,” Dutcher said. “I’d rather have a fresh team. I also think all these games isn’t good for a student-athlete.”
SDSU will rematch Colorado State at their place this Friday. The Rams lost a nail-biter in overtime to Wyoming on Monday night.
“That is one of the hardest arenas to play in with the altitude, but also their fans are very passionate,” Johnson said.