After winning one out of three and taking fourth place at the Maui Jim Maui Invitational last week, losing to #14 Arizona and #9 Arkansas, SDSU was back at Viejas Arena tonight to battle UC Irvine, who they are 11-7 overall and have won the last three games against.
November 27, 2020, was the last time the two teams met, and Keshad Johnson got 14 points in 17 minutes off the bench in a 77-58 SDSU victory. Aguek Arop had a team-leading seven rebounds in 23 minutes played, and Matt Mitchell led in playing time with 26 minutes and had 11 points.
Anteaters head coach Russell Turner, the winningest coach in team history, has UC Irvine off to a great start this season. One of their biggest wins so far was against #21 Oregon 69-56 on Friday, Nov. 11. They came into the game against SDSU with a 6-1 record this season, riding a three-game winning streak. The Anteaters defeated Nicholls 83-56 and New Mexico State 85-68 in the Las Vegas Holiday Classic this past weekend. UC Irvine guard DJ Davis had 18 points or higher in both contests and shot 64% beyond the arc.
The result from the Maui Invitational took a turn for the worse in the AP Poll for the Aztecs, as they dropped from #17 to #24. SDSU, back in their electrified home arena full of loud fans, were looking to end their two-game losing streak, which they last had to end the 2021-22 season. This game showed that they can overcome little setbacks, but head coach Brian Dutcher didn’t seem like dropping in the AP poll rankings affected the team too much.
“It’s a tremendous respect for our program,” Dutcher said. “Most non-power five schools lose two in a row, and they can’t get them out of the rankings fast enough. I think people were accepting of that.”
The Aztecs won a nail-biter versus the Anteaters 72-69, and got their fourth-straight win versus the team and improved to 5-2 on the season, handing UC Irvine their second loss of the season.
“That’s how coaches get gray hair right there and I got a lot of it,” Dutcher said postgame in his reaction to the win. “The first game after Hawaii is always tough. It’s super tough when you schedule a team six and one playing really good basketball.”
Matt Bradley got the scoring started with a lay-up and one, completing the three-point play.
After Dean Keeler was fouled in the paint and made his two free throws to make it a 3-2 game, both teams were back and forth down the floor with exhilarating speed.
It was a close game for about the first 13 minutes of the game, but then after Darrion Trammell set up Keshad Johnson for a big dunk that erupted the Aztec fanbase, it swung momentum in the Aztecs favor.
After Davis put up a floater for two points for the Anteaters, Micah Parrish made a three-pointer, was fouled and completed a four-point play to make it 28-19.
UC Irvine started crawling back into the game, taking advantage of SDSU fouls and made free throws while also making clutch shots. The score was 32-30 for the Aztecs at the end of the first half.
Davis, the leading scorer on the team, was dominant in the first half with 15 points, five-for-seven from the field, and a perfect two-for-two beyond the arc.
Turnovers were a key statistic for both teams in the first half, as the Anteaters committed 11 turnovers, and the Aztecs had nine.
The Scarlet and Black had more points in the paint (12-to-10) and off of turnovers (11-to-nine) than UC Irvine.
Although Bradley looked to struggle in the paint in the first half, he led the Aztecs with 11 points and went four-for-eight from the field and one-for-four beyond the arc.
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Just like at the start of the game, Bradley started the second, getting fouled within the arc, making the two-point field goal, and completing the three-point play.
The Aztecs started to go on a little run, but then the Anteaters started to crawl back.
After Trammell teed up Nathan Mensah for a dunk just a little under seven minutes into the second half, Justin Hohn got fouled beyond the arc and made his three free throws to tie the game at 44-44.
Then, Mensah was set up by Jaedon Ledee for another dunk which electrified the arena, and the Aztecs quickly had the lead back.
Dawson Baker and Davis’ two made lay-ups gave the Anteaters their first lead of the game, 48-47. Davis was fouled on the lay-up and made the free throw to make it 49-47, then on the Aztecs ensuing possession Aguek Arop dunked the ball to tie the game at 49-49.
After Baker made a lay-up to give UC Irvine the lead back, the Anteaters kept the lead for about three minutes. They made some really good shots in the paint and beyond the arc, but then the Aztecs started crawling back.
Trammell’s jumper gave the Aztecs the lead back 63-62, but the Anteaters, on their ensuing possession, got back in front courtesy of Davis’ jumper in the paint.
After Baker hit a three-pointer to extend the lead for the Anteaters, Trammell and Seiko made huge shots to give the Scarlet and Black the lead right back, 68-67.
The clock was dwindling under a minute, and with 13.6 seconds remaining, Baker put up a floater to make it 69-68, but that wouldn’t seal the deal for UC Irvine.
Parrish, with 2.2 seconds remaining, sank a three-pointer on the Aztecs’ ensuing drive to give SDSU a two-point lead, and as soon as it left his hand, he knew it was going in.
“I shot it with confidence,” Parrish said postgame. “I kind of looked away, I don’t think people see that [but] I knew I made it.”
Seiko put in a free throw, and the final score was 72-69, and the Aztecs grabbed their 33rd straight win against a Big West opponent.
Mensah was the difference maker in the second half and finished the game with 18 points, shooting seven-for11 from the field and four-for-six from the charity stripes.
Despite the loss for the Anteaters, Davis put up 28 points, shot nine-for-17 from the field, four-for-six beyond the arc, and six-for-seven from the charity stripes. Baker had a great second half and finished the game with 14 points, shooting six-for-11 from the field and two-for-four beyond the arc.
The Aztecs finished 27-for-58 from the field, six-for-21 beyond the arc, and 12-for-20 from the charity stripes. The Scarlet and Black handled the ball better in the second half, having five turnovers in the last 20 minutes and finishing with 14 turnovers.
SDSU outscored the Anteaters 16-to-nine in the paint and had more fast break points (eight-to-six).
This game proved that setbacks, like dropping seven spots in the ranking, won’t stun the Aztecs from gaining momentum right back.
The Aztecs next game is back at Viejas Arena on Friday, Dec. 2, at 7 pm against the Occidental Tigers, who they have beaten 25 times.
Adam is a senior at San Diego State University studying journalism & media studies. He is a huge sports fanatic who was born and raised in Vancouver, B.C. His favorite sports teams are the Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Padres, Toronto Raptors, and San Diego Wave FC. He also writes and reports for The Daily Aztec. When he graduates, he wants to become a sports writer or reporter for a news organization or TV station.