Less than 48 hours ago, the San Diego State Aztecs tipped off against Fresno State for their senior night. A game where Keshad Johnson, Trey Pulliam, and Matt Bradley all had a season-high in minutes in a double-overtime thriller. Tonight they traveled to Nevada to play their sixth game in 15 days, against a Nevada team that is playing only their fourth game in that stretch and has rested the last three days.
“It’s March, man, ain’t no time for, this hurts, I’m tired,” Joshua Tomaic said after beating Fresno State. “It’s March, so only the tough teams survive.”
“It’s all about attitude,” Brian Dutcher said after the Fresno State game. “I told the kids after the game, ‘that was fun, I think we’ll do it again on Saturday.’”
The Aztecs took this quote far too literally.
SDSU opened the second half dominating offensively and defensively. They went on a 23-8 run in the first eight minutes. The game appeared out of reach, but then Nevada knowing the fatigue from the Aztecs, they brought a full-court press. They reduced the 18 point deficit to one, with Nevada having a chance to win in the final seconds. Like the Fresno State game, the Aztecs had to rely on their defense to win the game. Johnson came away with the essential game-winning block.
Aztecs hung on for dear life and won 79-78.
“It’s two games in a row where we’ve had to rely on our defense to win the game,” Coach Brian Dutcher said. “Even though we turn it over, even though they have a chance to win, one possession, we haven’t given up that basket because we’re tough defensively.”
The Wolfpack got back into the game through forcing turnovers. SDSU turned the ball over a season-high 19 times. Nevada had 21 points off turnovers. But the Wolfpack failed to capitalize on the final turnover of the game. Matt Bradley threw the ball out of bounds with eight seconds left to give the Wolfpack a final opportunity.
“We looked like we weren’t used to dealing with the press,” Dutcher said. “We found a way to win at the end of day in probably the hardest month we have ever played of Aztec basketball.”
“They turned it up on us in the second half,” Trey Pulliam said. “They made us work. They hit us with something we weren’t prepared for.”
This Nevada game may feel a bit pointless, standings wise. Minutes before the Aztecs, Wolfpack game, Colorado State defeated Boise State, which means that SDSU is locked into the 3 seed in the Mountain West tournament regardless of their results against Nevada.
But that is not the SDSU mentality. This was an important game to end the season on momentum and keep a high-quality NCAA tournament resume. The Aztecs still have no losses outside of quadrant one, and Nevada would have been a quadrant two loss.
With SDSU playing on tired legs. Dutcher utilized quick substitutions. Before the first TV timeout, he subbed out three players at once. He did the same three minutes later. Dutcher continued exchanging players more frequently than normal. However, Tahirou Diabate picked up an injury and could not return. Aguek Arop did not play from his injury last game. Therefore, the Aztecs lacked more depth tonight.
One way to help a tired team is to give them extra rest on the free-throw line. In the first half, the officials blew a tight whistle. There was a combined 22 fouls and 25 free throws. Seven players had two fouls. The second half was a bit chippy, so the whistles continued. The game ended with 47 fouls and 58 free throw attempts.
This Nevada team’s potential is much higher than they have put on the court this season. The eighth-place team in the conference was projected to finish third in the preseason polls. But injuries and losing streaks have derailed their season.
Nevada, under Coach Steve Alford, former New Mexico coach, he has always played the Aztecs close. The Aztecs have won the last seven meetings, but the last five games have been decided by single digits.
In the first matchup against Nevada, Grant Sherfield and Warren Washington, two of the Wolfpack’s best players were sidelined. Sherfield was the Mountain West preseason player of the year. He is averaging 18 points a game and six assists.
Sherfield played with hunger. He opened the game with 17 first-half points. Outside of Sherfield, the Wolfpack only made four shots in the first half.
He even drew a foul on Trey Pulliam after incidentally running into him. The play gave flashbacks to 2011 when Kemba Walker flopped on a Jamaal Franklin shoulder hit in the Sweet 16.
Sherfield finished with 30 points and seven assists.
Nevada has five players averaging double figures. But where they struggle is defense. They rank 145th in Kenpom defensive efficiency. The Aztecs took advantage. They shot 53.1% from the field.
Matt Bradley played an efficient game. He only took four shots in the first half, but he cashed on all seven of his free throws. Since missing two at the end of the game against the Broncos, he is shooting 82% from the line. Surprisingly he disappeared in the second half. He did not attempt the same amount of shots that he normally does. But he still finished the game with 24 points on 6-of-10 shooting and six rebounds.
Pulliam opened the second half with confidence. In back-to-back possessions, he took two fastbreak pull-up mid-range jumpers. His biggest shot was with four minutes left. The Wolfpack were on a 10-1 run and decreased the deficit to eight points. Pulliam hit another pull-up jumper and was fouled. He finished the game with 12 points and four assists.
With Bradley, Johnson, and Pulliam all playing extended minutes against the Bulldogs. Players with rested legs needed to step up for an Aztecs victory.
Lamont Butler played only 26 minutes against the Bulldogs, and he played aggressive downhill basketball in the first half. He made his first three-pointer in four games. He finished with 11 points which is the most he has scored since January 8th against Colorado State.
“Both Lamont and Trey had real solid games,” Dutcher said.
After playing only 18 minutes last game due to foul trouble, Nathan Mensah again picked up an early two fouls in the first half. But he came back in with something to prove. He opened the second half with the first basket, an easy dunk, and he was a defensive menace. He had an essential block in the final minute that led to an Aztec victory. He finished with seven points and four rebounds.
Chad Baker-Mazara only played 12 minutes last game. He made his first shot tonight, but he also picked up two fouls early in the first half. He picked up a technical after Desmond Cambridge fouled him on a three, then stepped over him. Bradley pushed Cambridge, but Baker-Mazara got the technical. He responded by hitting all three free throws then hitting an acrobatic layup while getting fouled. He finished the game with eight points.
The Wolfpack celebrated senior night tonight but only have one senior. Thankfully for Aztec fans, Desmond Cambridge is the senior. He seems to always save his best shooting nights for SDSU. But tonight, he struggled shooting 4-for-12 from the field. But he hit a clutch three-pointer late in the game to give Nevada a chance to win.
With the Aztecs claiming the three seed, they get a bye in the first round and will not have to play until Thursday. They will play the winner of Fresno State vs. San Jose State on Wednesday night. The game will be held at 8:30, Thursday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“We’re playing pretty good basketball heading into the conference tournament, and we just have to believe that our best basketball is yet to come,” Dutcher said.