Viejas Arena and the SDSU Aztec players took a huge exhale as SDSU survived a close test against Nevada.
With the game and NCAA tournament at-large berth on the line, the Aztecs made critical winning plays to defeat the Wolfpack 65-63.
When Nevada had a chance to tie or take the lead, the Aztecs depended on old reliable, their defense. They contested every shot and forced turnovers when it mattered most.
“Hard game, I told the team after the game, the Mountain West is no joke,” Brian Dutcher said.
It was quieter in Viejas today with ‘The Show’ half full. This Nevada game was a makeup and was not on the original schedule. Perhaps, the fans were still suffering from the Aztecs’ last-second loss to Colorado State or it was a beautiful day outside the arena in San Diego. But the Aztec players did not have the option to take the game off. They had to remain focused as a loss to Nevada at home would be the dagger in the heart to the Aztecs’ NCAA tournament resume.
Less than 48 hours ago, SDSU nearly pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in school history. Trailing by as many as 20 with 10 minutes to go, then taking the lead with 14 seconds left, the Aztecs were left heartbroken after David Roddy hit a game-winner in the remaining seconds. But Dutcher has preached an NBA mentality all season and said after the Rams loss, “We can’t sit here and obsess over a loss and let it turn into two or three losses.”
Regardless of Dutcher’s sentiments, the Aztecs came out flat. They played an underdog Wolfpack team that did not have much to lose. Nevada came in on a four-game losing streak, missing two of their best players, and have not won in San Diego since 1998. Of course, Nevada came out firing from everywhere.
They made their first six shots which included three shots from beyond the arc. The Aztecs again found themselves down to start a half again as they trailed 18-5.
Dutcher was calm after Nevada’s opening hot shooting. He told the team, “Just hang in there, don’t get frustrated. We can turn it in a heartbeat.”
Then, the Wolfpack ignited the passion for the Aztecs.
After Tre Coleman hit a three, Kenan Blackshear verbalized something inappropriate and received a technical. The Nevada coach, Steve Alford, was fuming at his player. A veteran in the MWC, Alford has seen the little things that start Aztec patented runs. SDSU vocalized their response on the scoreboard. They went on a 23-6 run after the technical and held Nevada scoreless for over seven minutes.
Nevada answered with their own energy play just before the half. They stole the ball from Matt Bradley and made a running underhand floater at the buzzer. They fed off this and regained the lead in the second half.
Bradley quickly moved on from his mistake, and responded for it in a monster way. He hit back-to-back-to-back threes to fire up Viejas. He blew by defenders and found his open teammates. Of his many highlights, he had a beautiful pass to Joshua Tomaic for an and-one finish. He led the Aztecs with 26 points and five threes.
Bradley also demonstrated his leadership. With a minute left in the game and only leading by a point, Bradley gathered the team on the court. Bradley said in the press conference that he told them, “We just need to pull out a win. We were on the defensive end, so we should feel comfortable.”
Again, the Aztecs struggled offensively. The Wolfpack’s starting lineup featured the Aztecs’ kryptonite which is height. Nevada ranks as the 14th tallest team in the NCAA, and their starting lineup had four players over 6’6, which posed issues for the Aztecs against USC, Michigan, and Boise State. They lost the rebound battle in all those games. The Wolfpack owned the glass, winning the rebound battle 35-28. The biggest rebounds were back-to-back offensive rebounds leading to a Desmond Cambridge three to cut the game to a two-point deficit with two minutes left.
Nathan Mensah did not help this disadvantage by picking up two early fouls and only playing 5 minutes in the first half. Then he picked up his fourth with 10 minutes left in the second half. But he was critical defensively at the end of the game.
Offensively, the Aztecs were again a one-man army. They had one player in double figures. The Wolfpack started to double Bradley towards the end of the game, and the Aztec offense needed others to step up. Collectively, all the players chipped in with key plays to contribute to the victory.
“I thought Trey’s offense took a step forward for where it’s been, Lamont is playing good downhill, Josh was fantastic,” Dutcher said. “It’s by committee right now. Matt is Matt, and then we got to find someone else to have a good night with him.”
Nevada was without their best player Grant Sherfield for the third straight game due to a foot injury. They also were without their starting center, Warren Washington, who averages over 10 points per game.
Due to Nevada playing on short rest and their third straight road game, the Aztecs decided to press the Wolfpack to wear Kenan Blackshear down who’s replacing Sherfield. Dutcher sent out Lamont Butler, Adam Seiko, and Trey Pulliam to be a pest full court and the team trapped near the sidelines. This disrupted the Wolfpack rhythm and forced 16 turnovers. This also led to something the Aztecs desperately needed, easy, fast-break baskets. They finished with 17 fast breakpoints.
“We were just trying to press to wear their legs out so that maybe we could have a run,” Dutcher said.
The Wolfpack still excelled in shooting. They shot 44% from the field and were a blistering 52% from beyond the arc. The best a Mountain West team has shot against the Aztecs this season.
Desmond Cambridge is a known name in Aztec fans’ households. In 2018, he put up 25 points on a 7-of-11 three-point shooting for Brown University when they routed the Aztecs on Christmas week. Today, he hit critical threes all game to keep the Wolfpack in the game. There was none bigger than the three he hit to cut the Aztec lead to one with twenty seconds left. He willed his team to the finish and scored 18 points.
Will Baker, a 7-foot transfer from Texas, had a monster dunk on top of Tahirou Diabate and hit critical threes in the second half. He had 14 points and eight rebounds but had three turnovers. His most critical turnover was at the end of the game, where he stepped out of bounds with an opportunity to win the game on a three.
The Aztecs now get two days of rest and play San Jose State Wednesday night at 8 PM. Dutcher isn’t overlooking the Spartans, who are yet to win a Mountain West game.
“We’re ready to play anybody, anytime, anywhere,” Dutcher said.