After starting the season 4-0 and claiming three resume-building wins, the sky seemed to be the limit for this season’s Aztecs. But yesterday proved in a blowout loss to Arizona that SDSU is nowhere near where they need to be to make a deep run in March.
After giving up 51 second-half points to Ohio State and allowing Arizona to shoot 58.6% from the field, these games served as a wake-up call that the defense needs serious work to reach last year’s standards. Coach Brian Dutcher and crew would probably love to get back to the drawing board and focus on X’s and O’s. But they do not have that luxury with a matchup against the quick and athletic #9 ranked Arkansas Razorbacks less than 24 hours later in the third-place game of the Maui Invitational.
In the first half, the Aztecs looked like they had something to prove on the defensive end. They forced two shot-clock violations in the final two minutes of the period. The coaching staff went crazy, and the players flexed their muscles over their defensive intensity. In the first half, they forced ten turnovers and the Razorbacks to shoot 41% from the field and 0-for-8 from three. They went into the break with a nine-point lead.
Like they did against BYU and Ohio State, the Aztecs utilized momentum runs to extend their lead.
At the 16:00 mark, Trevon Brazile hit his second three of the half and cut SDSU’s former lead of 13 down to just three points.
In an instant, the Aztecs followed it up with a Nathan Mensah slam off a beautiful Micah Parrish pass, a difficult Keshad Johnson layup in transition, then back-to-back Matt Bradley layups.
Just like that, at the 14:28 mark, SDSU’s lead was back to double digits at 11.
But slowly, the Razorbacks chipped away; at 8:00, the Aztec lead was four.
At the 3:37 mark, the game was tied, and the Aztecs lost Nathan Mensah to his fifth foul of the game.
1:15 mark, game is still tied. Dutcher called timeout and drew up a play to set up Matt Bradley alone with one defender on the opposite side of the court. He drove baseline and scooped by his defender for a reverse layup. Aztecs lead.
Thirteen seconds left, Adam Seiko extended the lead to four, and the Aztecs were a stop away from ending the game. But coming down the floor, Lamont Butler committed a silly foul and gave Arkansas free throws and the ability to cut the lead to two. On the following inbounds, he was trapped in a double team and coughed up the ball.
Seven seconds left, Aztecs lead by two, Razorbacks ball.
The Aztecs put forth a great defensive possession, but Arkansas’s Kamani Johnson made a tip-in at the final second to send the game to overtime.
The vacation was extended an extra five minutes.
But it was not a happy ending to the trip. On the first possession of overtime, Arkansas took its first lead since the 11:22 mark in the first half.
Overtime, 39 seconds left, Arkansas ball, Razorbacks lead by one after Keshad Johnson made two free throws.
The next possession, Johnson fouled out on a questionable call, and Arkansas went 1-for-2 from the line.
Thirteen seconds left, SDSU down two. Bradley had a chance to tie on a drive to the rim with a layup attempt, and it rolled off.
Aztecs suffer heartbreaking defeat, 78-74.
“Very disappointed,” Coach David Velasquez said after. “Go learn from it, and take some really good things that we did this week. This is why we came here, to be tested, to learn. You want to always learn through winning, learning through losing hurts, learning through losing is tough.”
Against the Buckeyes, SDSU enjoyed the “friendly” rims of Maui, shooting 10-for-21 from three and 51% overall. But they could not buy a bucket against Arizona, shooting 3-for-19 from beyond the arc and 38% for the game.
The Aztecs continued to be frozen cold beyond the arc. They began the game 0-for-13 from three. In that stretch of the last two days, they shot 3-for-32 from three.
Finally, on the 14th attempt of the game, Bradley, who appeared to injure himself on the previous possession, swished the first Aztec three of the game. They finished the game 2-for-18 from beyond the arc.
Dutcher has preached that he wants his players to make plays for others. He is working hard with Darrion Trammell and Lamont Butler to have positive assist/turnover ratios and knows that players such as Matt Bradley are gifted passers. But against Arizona, SDSU dished out only four assists and settled for difficult isolation possessions.
The start of the game was a similar story. In SDSUs first twelve field goals, none were assisted on. But with 2:38 remaining in the first half, Adam Seiko dished a pass to Aguek Arop to put the first assist on the board.
The assist-to-turnover ratio was not something that Dutcher will be proud of. But Arkansas is the eighth-best team in the nation at forcing turnovers; Creighton committed 17 in the previous game. In the first half, SDSU only gave up the ball five times.
But as the game went on, Arkansas’s ball pressure forced more turnovers. SDSU finished the game with 15, none more important than Butler’s to end regulation. 15 to 8, turnover to assist ratio.
The lack of ball movement made it difficult to find easy offense for the Aztecs. They relied on isolation possessions and took multiple difficult shots down the stretch in key moments.
To put the ball in the basket, the Aztecs chose the strategy that worked for them last year, Matt Bradley. He found himself in more isolation sets. He created space and employed his post fadeaway to hit shots. Aside from Darrion Trammell in overtime, no other Aztec was able to find open shots. He finished the game with a season-high 23 points and seven rebounds.
“It was great to see Matt Bradley getting going… He’s done such a good job for us, I thought he had a great look at the end of the game,” Velasquez said.
Thus far in Maui, freshman Anthony Black has been unstoppable, averaging 26 points per game. But foul trouble stopped his scoring outburst in this game. At the 10-minute mark in the first half, he picked up his second foul and sat on the bench. Immediately, the Razorbacks lost all rhythm offensively. They went through more than a 6-minute field goal drought and suddenly found themselves down double digits.
The Aztecs were intense with defensive ball pressure without Black in the game and found a better ability to score offensively without a 6’7 guard on the floor. But with the lead getting bigger for SDSU, Coach Eric Musselman subbed his freshman back in to regain the team’s rhythm. He scored or assisted on half of the teams points in the first half.
But in the second half, he did not score until he converted two free throws to tie the game with 1:26 left in the game.
In his place, Ricky Council stepped up in the second half as he scored 18 second-half points. Brazile was the leading scorer at 20 as he made three big shots from beyond the arc in the second half.
The Razorbacks look to finish at the rim. SDSU has struggled to defend the paint this season against bigger players such as Fousseyni Traore on BYU and the big men of the Wildcats.
Defending the paint was not made any easier for the Aztecs when Nathan Mensah picked up two early bad fouls. One on the other side of the court, the other on a moving screen. With 17:16 left in the first half, he was on the bench and did not return until the second half. With 10 minutes remaining in the game, he picked up his fourth foul.
In his place, Aguek Arop played vital defensive minutes. From the five spot, he matched up on the perimeter and led the full-court press. To end the game, Arop was critical to guarding the best players on the Razorbacks. He answered the call with tremendous defense.
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The Aztecs won the battle in the paint but were still outdueled on the glass, 41-35.
The Aztecs now walk away from Maui with one victory against Ohio State. It will be a long plane ride home, knowing they led against Arkansas for nearly 39 minutes. But they gained invaluable experience from this competition and will be more prepared come March.
“We belong on this stage, and we expect to be on this stage the rest of this year, Velasquez said. “We expect to learn from this, come back, and be ready to show all the things that we have learned from this week. We expect to have an incredible season moving forward, and I hope we can look back and say thank goodness for Maui.”
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.