Aztecs fall to the Broncos in defensive slugfest

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Credit: Cali Camera/ EVT Sports

Viejas Arena- San Diego, California

Ugly basketball sometimes just takes one beautiful play.

A game that featured a combined 29% from the field from the two teams was overshadowed by Marcus Shaver Jr., who made the biggest play of the game. After hitting the game-winning three against Utah State in the Broncos’ previous game, he did the same to the Aztecs. He found one of the only open shots of the game and capitalized. Broncos win 42-37.

Coach Dutcher had flashbacks of an unforgettable SDSU loss after the game.

“Two years ago in the Mountain West tournament, it was Malachi missing a shot and Sam Merrill making one,” Dutcher said. “That’s what it was tonight. Bradley missed an open three, and Shaver made one. That’s the way the game ends.”

The last time the Aztecs were on the court, they ended the 11 game win streak of the Colorado State Rams. Now, after a two-week layoff due to seven different players and coaches testing positive for COVID, the Aztecs welcomed Boise State, who also comes in on an 11 game win streak and sits on top of the Mountain West.

After two long weeks of no Aztec hoops, there was a different feel from the players in warmups. There were smiles on faces, players dancing to the arena music, made half-court shots, and the whole team making bird calls as Keshad Johnson soared through the air to thrown down a dunk to end the pregame warmups.

But once the ball was tipped, it was a different story. The Aztecs couldn’t create an open shot.

Credit: Cali Camera/ EVT Sports

“Sometimes you gotta just find a way to create a basket,” Dutcher said.

It took 30 minutes until the Aztecs found a groove offensively. The Aztecs went on an eight-minute 13-0 run fueled by a SportsCenter top-10 thunderous dunk from Nathan Mensah and a corner three from Lamont Butler to give the Aztecs the lead. But SDSU couldn’t hit the shots that they needed to hold on.

The Broncos, who were playing their third game in five days, came out with energy. Boise played intense defense, celebrated on the bench, and exposed the rust from the Aztecs’ layoff.

Viejas tradition is the fans clap to a beat until there is a made basket. The out-of-synced clapping matched the Aztec offense. SDSU opened the game with errant passes, sloppy execution, inability to dribble the ball, and, goes without saying, missed shots. They finally lifted the seal off the rim after almost six minutes after eight straight missed shots and three turnovers.

The rust stuck on SDSU. Through 15 minutes, the Aztecs shot 5-of-24 from the field and desperately relied on their defense to keep the deficit at 17-12.

Battling through the 30% first-half shooting, on the final possession of the half, Trey Pulliam hit a second straight floater to give the Aztecs the first lead of the game at 23-22. The basket did not carry momentum into the next half.

The second half doesn’t require the fans to clap in rhythm, but the half started in similar fashion to the first. The Aztecs didn’t make a basket for over 10 minutes, and the Broncos opened the half on a 13-1 run.

The Aztecs went into desperation mode defensively. They got into pass lanes, reached for the ball on every dribble, took charges, and gave up nothing easy.

“To our guy’s credit, they played through frustration,” Dutcher said. “They believe in themselves and their teammates.”

Credit: Cali Camera/ EVT Sports

With 26 seconds left, the Aztecs found themselves down three with a chance to tie. Dutcher said that Boise sniffed out the play design for Adam Seiko in the corner, which resulted in Matt Bradley taking a contested three as the seconds expired.

The Broncos come in ranked 14th in defensive efficiency, and combine that with the rust from SDSU, the Aztecs had to work for everything. Another issue for the Aztecs was that the Broncos are the 15th tallest team in the nation with four players in their starting lineup over 6’7. The Aztecs have struggled this season against taller teams such as USC and Michigan.

The size was a problem. They shot 28% from the field and were outrebounded by six even though they dominated the glass in the first half.

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The Broncos came in ranking 355th in the NCAA in free throw percentage. But they made them when it mattered. They shot 9-of-11 from the charity stripe, which was crucial in the closing seconds.

“I told the team after the game that you have to have an NBA mentality, a short memory,” Dutcher said. “You can reflect on the game tonight, but tomorrow we go back to work because we play on Monday.”

After only playing three games in a full month, the Aztecs have the tall task of playing three games in five days. After a day of rest tomorrow, they’ll lace up their sneakers again on Monday night at Viejas against UNLV, then travel to Logan to play Utah State on Wednesday night.

Even though the expectation was to have the roster fully healthy for the first time in almost two months, Chad Baker Mazara had a non-COVID illness and missed the game. Dutcher said postgame that it was due to him missing practice, and he expects him to play on Monday.

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