Aztecs overpower Air Force with hot shooting

Credit: Cali Camera/ EVT Sports

Viejas Arena- San Diego, California 

Two days before Valentine’s Day, Viejas Arena fell in love with what they saw from an Aztec offense that came into the night ranked 240th in offensive efficiency.

San Diego State shot their best field goal percentage in nine years at 64% from the field and made offense look easy tonight. Their efficient scoring was too much to handle for Air Force as they defeated the Falcons 76-64.

“I told the team yesterday that playing Air Force was like going to the dentist,” coach Brian Dutcher said. “You know you have to do it, you know that it’s good for you, but it’s no fun.” “I’m usually nervous playing Air Force on a three-day prep, and today we had a one-day prep.”

The Falcons are a tricky team to evaluate. In the first eight games of conference play, they defeated Utah State, UNLV, and San Jose State. They also lost by single digits to Colorado State, Nevada, Boise State, and Wyoming. But now, suddenly in their last three games, they were embarrassed by Utah State and UNLV, and they lost by 14 to New Mexico.

The better Falcons team showed up tonight, particularly in the first half.

The elite Aztec defense struggled to adjust to the unique Air Force offense. Air Force started the game perfectly from the field through nine minutes. SDSU allowed easy layups and open baskets. The Falcons, in the first half, scored 33 points on 63% shooting.

But in the second half, the best defensive unit in the nation looked much more like themselves. They got into pass lanes, contested shots, and forced Air Force to start the half 2-for-9. The Falcons shot only 40% in the second half.

A.J. Walker was a particular contributor for Air Force. About an hour before the game, he was the only Falcon player on the floor taking shots. He was putting in extra work, and his locked-in resembled his level of play. He made his first eight shots and a tremendous post move on Keshad Johnson to open the second half, but then the Aztecs limited him. He still finished with 27 points.

Credit: Cali Camera/ EVT Sports

“He’s a great basketball player. When a great basketball player is hot, there’s not too much you can do about it,” Johnson said.

The Aztec offense had one of the best shooting performances of the season. Due to Air Force slowing the game down with its snail’s pace tempo, the Aztecs only took 40 shots, but SDSU made 25 of them. The Aztecs broke a three-game streak of only having one player in double figures as they had three tonight. They also had more assists than turnovers. But Dutcher was not pleased with the team’s 16 turnovers.

SDSU capitalized on a shorter Falcons team as they only started one player over 6’5. The Aztec big men feasted.

The Aztecs imposed their will with their height as they attacked the paint consistently found easy dunks and fouls. Nathan Mensah scored 14. Johnson had 11, Tahirou Diabate had nine, Joshua Tomaic had an easy four. Collectively, the four of them missed only two shots on seventeen attempts. The Aztecs finished with 38 points in the paint.

“We were the bigger team. We used that to our advantage,” Mensah said.

“We scored points today, 25 off the bench, everybody that played contributed not only defensively but on the offensive end,” Dutcher said.

The Falcons rank 226th in the nation at giving up offensive rebounds. At halftime, they had five total rebounds. The Aztecs won the rebound battle 29-18.

Air Force came into the game fouling on 28% of opponent’s possessions which ranks worst in the Mountain West. With seven minutes remaining in the first half, the Aztecs were in the bonus. For the game, SDSU shot 21-for-27 from the charity stripe.

It would not be an Aztec recap without mentioning Matt Bradley. Tonight, he was not needed for his usual 20+ point performance. He finished with 13 points, five rebounds, and five assists. But Viejas Arena did hold their breath for him early in the game.

With about 8 minutes left in the first half, Bradley slipped and rolled his ankle. He subbed himself out and gingerly walked off the court. But he returned about two minutes later with a wrap around his left ankle.

He demonstrated that the ankle was fine in the two possessions following as he drove and dished a perfect pass to Trey Pulliam for an easy look, then beat his defender for a layup.

“We’ll see what it is tomorrow,” Dutcher said. “We don’t have a lot of recovery time; we’re playing in two days.”

This scoring output has been uncommon for the Aztecs this season, but in the last 63 games, when they score over 65 points, their record is 62-1.

Class of 2022 and incoming Aztec freshman Miles Byrd led the ‘I Believe’ chant in front of ‘The Show.’ He got a taste of what SDSU basketball is like with tonight’s win.

The Aztecs decided to wear their black road jerseys tonight, and the Falcons wore their gray alternates tonight. The gray jerseys were an ode to former Air Force center Ryan Swan who is finishing up his final round of chemotherapy today for his battle with brain cancer. All the coaches wore gray, and the Falcons wore t-shirts that said “Swan Strong.” Gray is the color to support brain tumor awareness.

“I’m really thankful that we were able to support,” Mensah said. “I pray that he recovers quickly.”

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“We remember what a great competitor he is. I’m sure he’s competing hard physically to get back healthy,” Dutcher said. “What a blessing it is to be healthy and playing basketball, so let’s take advantage of our blessings.”

The Aztecs now have a big home test ahead as they will rematch Utah State on Tuesday night.

“We have to go back to the drawing board and prepare,” Johnson said. “But San Diego State basketball, we prepare better than anyone else in the NCAA.”

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