Aztecs suffer disappointing loss in the final seconds against Boise State
When Leon Rice was asked before the game what he thought looking at the film of the first matchup, he said, “It was alarming how physical it was. Jaw-dropping how both teams played defensively. It was hand-to-hand combat.”
Tuesday night, again, was a war—a brawl for the Mountain West conference and a fight to make the NCAA tournament.
The Aztecs threw the first punch as they opened the game with an 8-2 lead. The Broncos retaliated with a dominating end to the first half as they led by 10 at intermission. The highlight for the Broncos was a Naje Smith heave at the end of the shot-clock from beyond the arc, with Nathan Mensah suffocating him but also fouling him.
As they have done all season, the Aztecs fought back. The second half featured a six-minute scoring drought for the Broncos. The Aztecs took the deficit to a one-possession game.
With one minute to go, Chad Baker Mazara hit a seemingly decisive blow to the Broncos as the Aztecs took their first lead in 28 minutes of play. Emmanuel Akot answered with his own counterpunch, a three-pointer as the Broncos regained the lead with 35 seconds left. Then Nathan Mensah responded again with an alley-oop drunk from Matt Bradley to regain the lead.
Finally, the knockout punch was delivered by an official. Nathan Mensah was called for a trip on Abu Kigab with two seconds remaining in the game. Kigab hit both free throws. Game over. Broncos win 58-57.
“You can’t foul them there. We know that,” Coach Brian Dutcher said after the game. “He tripped up on Nate’s feet, and it’s unfortunate because it’s going to come down to free throws.”
“This game can be a great joy or great sorrow,” Dutcher said.
The officials were using their whistle in this physical battle. The Broncos shot 26 free throws compared to the Aztecs 11.
In a game decided at the wire, making free throws is essential. In the first matchup, the Aztecs made more field goals but lost the made free throw battle 9-1. The same happened on Tuesday. The Aztecs made five more field goals than the Broncos, but lost at the charity stripe 17-7.
Matt Bradley will be in the gym for countless hours after the game. With seven seconds remaining, the Aztecs had a one-point lead with Bradley at the free-throw line. He missed both. The rest is history. The Aztecs finished the game 7-for-11 from the line.
“We got to make the free throws,” Dutcher said. “Matt knows that no one knows that more than Matt, and he’ll feel awful for it.”
The Broncos are ranked 348th in the nation at 64.5% from the free-throw line. They could not capitalize from their extra time in the bonus but made them when it mattered. The Broncos finished 17-26 from the line.
Foul trouble was a significant problem in the first half for the Aztecs. The Broncos were in the bonus with seven minutes remaining in the first half. Trey Pulliam, Lamont Butler, and Joshua Tomaic all had two fouls.
Butler and Pulliam both picked up their third foul two minutes into the second half. Dutcher knowing the significance of the game, decided to keep one of them on the floor. The Broncos were in the bonus in the second half with 13 minutes remaining.
“All I want from the refs is to call it the same on both ends,” Dutcher said.
In the first matchup, it took the Aztecs six minutes to make a shot. Tonight, it took them 18 seconds with a Keshad Johnson post-move. Through the first nine minutes, they had 12. Then the scoring drought returned for the Aztecs. Over the next seven minutes, SDSU had a five-minute drought and allowed an 18-2 run by the Broncos through 15 minutes in the first half.
The Broncos were led by a trio of scorers. Smith, who was scoreless in the first matchup, Marcus Shaver and Abu Kigab combined for 27 first-half points. Kigab scored from a plethora of ways as he beat Aztec defenders for layups and hit open three-pointers. Even though Marcus Shaver is known as the go-to guy on the Broncos in crunch time, Kigab was the most involved late in the game. He finished the game with 21 points.
The coaches and players knew what to expect, a defensive slugfest. In the first matchup, the final score was 42-37, and the combined FG% of the two teams was under 30%. The Aztecs rank first in defense according to Kenpom, and Boise State ranks 11th.
Again, the defense defined this game. The teams combined for 23 turnovers and only 11 assists. The Broncos shot 34% from the field. The Aztecs shot better at almost 46%.
The Broncos are the 18th tallest team in the nation. The Broncos are the #1 team in the conference in grabbing offensive rebounds. Boise State won the rebounding battle in the first matchup. They again won, winning 32-31. Most importantly, they won the offensive rebound battle 11-7.
The Broncos’ size posed a real problem for the Aztecs in the first matchup. Early on, their length caused issues for the Aztecs. SDSU had passes deflected, could not get looks over defenders, and turned the ball over. In the second half, the Aztecs adjusted. They scored 37 points (the same as the entire first matchup), and they shot 52% from the field.
Nathan Mensah was a force. He battled in the paint and made nothing easy for Bronco scorers coming inside. He finished the game with 13 points and 11 rebounds. But he did foul out on the most important play of the game with two seconds left.
The Aztecs have made more threes recently as they hit nine against Fresno State and seven against Utah State. This was a big reason for their comeback tonight. In the first half, they went 0-for-4 from beyond the arc. But in the second half, they made six of their seven attempts.
Bradley struggled to find an open look in the first matchup as he scored only seven points on 3-of-13 shooting. Tuesday night was not any easier for him as he only had two points in the first half. He will remember the missed free throws but the important shots he hit in the second half brought the Aztecs back into the game. He made critical threes and a huge and-one layup to cut the deficit to one with around two minutes to play. He also assisted on the go-ahead dunk to Mensah with twenty-four seconds to play.
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Even though Baker-Mazara did not play the first matchup against the Broncos, he did not catch Boise by surprise. After scoring 20 points against Fresno State, he could not find an open look against the Broncos. But he did still finish with seven points with the dramatic corner go-ahead three late in the game.
Playing on the road has been an obstacle for SDSU. The Aztecs are now 3-5 away from Viejas Arena this season. But they are winless in four games playing at elevation (BYU, Utah State, Colorado State) and tonight. They finish the year with two more vital road games in elevation against Wyoming and Nevada.
The Aztecs will first face San Jose State on Friday as they will look to avenge this disappointing defeat.
Dutcher has preached moving on quickly from both losses and wins. He knows Bradley will be all over himself for his missed free throws. But he again preached an NBA mentality.
“You can feel bad tonight, but you can’t feel bad tomorrow because we have a game in two days. Then we have another game, and we can’t have a hangover effect. We have to be strong and tough.”
Class of 2022 at San Diego State University. Communication major and pursuing a sports journalism profession. Season ticket holder of the SDSU MBB team since 2011. Fondest memory of Viejas Arena is Aztec legend, Dwayne Polee sparking a 19-1 run over New Mexico to win the MW Conference in 2014.