Aztecs overpower Ohio State with hot shooting and bench scoring

Credit: MWC

CRedit: SDSU Athletics

SDSU’s offseason and first three games of the 2022-2023 season can be defined by one word, hype. These previous months have led to this moment, the Maui Invitational. A three-game event with one of the most loaded fields in the tournament’s history, a chance for the 17th-ranked Aztecs to prove that the hype is real.

For the Aztecs, this trip to Maui is no vacation, it is a business trip.

Brian Dutcher said before the Ohio State game, “we’ve had a lot of games like this where it’s the first round of the tournament, we’re enjoying Maui, but then you flip the switch. Now it’s time to play basketball the next three days, so I think the team has done that, flipped the switch, and they are ready to go.”

Dutcher preached to his team all offseason they must be good early in the year. They were tested against two 2022 NCAA tournament teams and a road matchup against Stanford. In those games, they trailed by double digits in the second half, fought off opponents’ comebacks, and did what was needed to secure victories. These games prepared them for their foes in the Maui Invitational.

SDSU was not fazed by going scoreless in the opening four minutes or the Buckeye’s attempts to come back in the game. In the second half, the Aztecs saw their double-digit lead evaporate and turn to only four. But the unfazed Aztecs flipped the switch. Micah Parrish hit a three, then another three from the same spot. Then Lamont Butler stole the inbounds pass, and Aguek Arop scored an easy layup. Forty-six seconds later, the lead was back to 12.

OSU stayed in it and scored easily on the Aztecs in the second half. But SDSU continued to answer on their own end and kept them at arm’s length the rest of the way.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

SDSU wins 88-77, showing the hype is real.

“I’m so proud of this team, the resiliency, the mental toughness to play through whatever it was,” Assistant coach Dave Velasquez said.

Major conference foe Ohio State is ranked 29th in Kenpom rankings and won their first three matchups by at least 22 points. But no opponent was ranked better than 289th.

Disregarding the inferior competition, their defense has been superb to start the year. They’ve held opponents to 33% from the field and 19.7% from the three-point line. The second-best numbers in the country. The defensive prowess was evident in the first four minutes.

The Aztecs missed their first eight shots. But then Adam Seiko, who is the rare case of a two-time Maui Invitational participant, lifted the lid off the rim with a long corner two. From there, the Aztecs shooting on Maui’s friendly rims made shots from everywhere.

The Aztecs counter-punched their slow start with the use of up-tempo offense and the three-point line to get the offense clicking. Butler pulled up in transition for a three off the backboard, then Seiko hit a wide-open three, then Matt Bradley made one of his own out of an outbounds play to push the SDSU lead to double digits. After opening the game scoreless, they closed the first half shooting 56% from the field.

For the game, the Aztecs shot 50.8% from the field and 10-for-21 from the three-point line.

SDSU matched OSU in the first half with defensive intensity making the game into a heavyweight brawl early on. SDSU forced the Buckeyes to shoot 30% from the field and appear uncomfortable on offense. Early on, it was clear that the step up in competition for OSU was apparent. But the Buckeyes handled the initial shock of playing a better opponent.

If defense was the storyline of the first half, blistering hot shooting represented the second half. In the first 10 minutes, the Aztecs scored 31 points on 67% shooting and hit 4-of-6 threes.

But the Buckeyes shot 53% in the second half and scored 51 points.

Credit: OSU Athletics

“Everybody wants our defense to end up where it was at the end of the year, that’s the one thing that continues to grow,” Velasquez said. “One thing that we’ve always seen Brian Dutcher’s teams and Coach Fisher’s teams, they’ve always gotten better throughout the year defensively. We’re good now, but we are not elite yet, too many mistakes being had.”

To open the second half, OSU was led by an unlikely threat, Sean McNeil, who caught fire, scoring 11 points in five minutes. He continued his hot shooting to keep OSU close. He finished with 22 points (20 in the second half).

“When a guy gets that hot, the scouting report goes out the window,” Velasquez said after. “For our guys to go out there and adjust, I wish they would have adjusted a little earlier… but credit to him, if anybody makes nine baskets against our defense… it’s still 22 points, but I’m looking, and we have four guys in double figures, and they have two. I thought that was the difference in the game.”

The battle of the bench was a storyline in this game. Every bench player for the Aztecs scored. They won the advantage 41-27.

“I thought our bench has done such a tremendous job with the waves that keep coming… our main strength is our depth,” Velasquez said.

In the second half, Micah Parrish came alive. Late in the game, it was not Darrion Trammell in the game; it was Parrish. He continued to hit timely three-pointers and played intense defense. He finished with 15 points (13 in the second half) and five rebounds.

Seiko hit timely baskets all game, including two big free throws late in the game. He finished with 14 points and five rebounds.

Arop had a typical stat line. Six points, four rebounds, and a dramatic impact on the game.

Velasquez said he does not pay much attention to plus/minus after games because of the volatility of college basketball. But Arop’s number popped out at him.

“When Aguek Arop plays 17 minutes and has a plus/minus of +24, it is absurd, that is unbelievable,” Velasquez said. “If you want to know why we have a lot of banners and rings with Aguek Arop on the team, that is everything you need to know.

Lamont Butler is becoming the leader of this Aztec team. It seems every game; he finds a new gear for his speed. He soared on fast breaks and catch-and-drive opportunities. The athletic OSU defenders had no player quick enough to stay in front of Butler when he got a full head of steam. The speed translated to the defensive end as he stayed in front of his opposition. He finished with 15 points, three assists, and zero turnovers.

Bradley found his rhythm in the first half. He pulled up for jumpers early in the shot clock and looked confident in his shooting stroke for the first time this year. With his threat to shoot, defenders jumped at his three-point attempts, which led to fouls and the ability to drive by. He picked up where he left off in the second period hitting an immediate three-pointer, but he picked up his third foul two minutes into the second half. With three minutes left in the game, he fouled out. He finished with 18 points.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

OSU’s head coach is Chris Holtmann. In his previous five seasons with the Buckeyes, he has qualified for the NCAA tournament every season (projected five seed for COVID year). He has sustained success his whole career after leading Butler to three NCAA’s tournament’s as well. But he has his flaws. The most relevant to tonight not seeing Jaedon LeDee’s potential and letting him transfer after his freshman season at OSU.

Tonight, LeDee found openings inside and used his size on the glass. He forced a frustrated Zed Key to pick up his second foul six minutes into the game after battling with LeDee for a rebound. LeDee did not score like his typical self, but he played fierce defense and was a presence whenever entering the game.

A key for OSU is a 6’6, 255-pound big man who wreaks havoc in the paint. The big SDSU lineup kept him in check. He averages 13 points and 12 rebounds a game. But tonight, he scored seven points and secured only three rebounds.

For one of the most prestigious regular-season tournaments in the NCAA, the stadium only fits 2,400 fans and gives the feeling of a high school gym. It is played at Lahaina Civic Center, with fans appearing to stand on top of the court. But what made it unique to tonight’s game was not the colorful Hawaiian flowers in the paint, but it was the three-point line. With multiple three-point lines beyond the arc for men and women, SDSU seemed confused by the extra line and lost multiple points to having a foot on the line. Something they will need to fix for the remaining games in the tournament.

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But SDSU fans represented well on the island. Velasquez said after the game, “we got the loudest fans in Maui right now, just a massive props to the San Diego State fans, and hopefully you are proud of our team, and that’s why we go out every day to go and show them why we’re so proud to be an Aztec.”

Up next is tomorrow at 7:30 PT, SDSU plays the winner of Arizona vs Cincinnati, who play following the Aztec game.

“I know one thing, no matter who we play tomorrow, they’re gonna go back to the hotel, we’re gonna get a night’s rest, get some treatment… and whoever we end up playing, we’ll be ready to go tomorrow,” Velasquez said.

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