Aztecs survive and advance to the Mountain West semifinals

Credit: Nicole Noel/ EVT Sports

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Credit: Nicole Noel/ EVT Sports

Survive and advance.

Thomas and Mack Center was halfway full with Aztec fans as the ‘We will be Victorious’ chant rained down on the court with four minutes to play.

The game was ugly, but they were victorious. San Diego State won 53-46.

Adam Seiko came over to the Aztec home fan side after the game and had a simple phrase, “Two more.”

“If you like late-night basketball and defense, this was your game,” Coach Brian Dutcher said post-game.

In the Aztecs vs. Bulldogs first matchup, Dutcher said the game would be a rock fight. After the last thriller went to double overtime on the SDSU senior night, the bout needed a new term.

“It’s going to be an all-out brawl,” Bradley said. “I think they’re confident that they can beat us. It’s going to be a battle for sure.”

It was a defensive scrap. There were no surprises in a game where the coaching staffs are well acquainted, and the teams have played each other three times in three weeks. Through 10 minutes, there was a combined 12 points. The Aztecs were 3-for-15, and the Bulldogs were 3-for-13, with both teams shooting 0-for-10 from three. The icing on the cake was Deon Stroud shooting a beyond half-court shot as the shot clock expired.

The teams finished shooting a combined 40% from the field and a combined 32 turnovers. The Bulldogs shot 39%, which was somehow the best they have shot in the three matchups against the Aztecs this year.

In the first matchup against the Bulldogs, the Aztecs won the game without the use of Matt Bradley. With eight minutes left in the second half, the Aztecs went back to the same strategy. Chad Baker-Mazara grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to give SDSU its first lead since the first half. He followed it up with a three-pointer then salute to ‘The Show.’ Keshad Johnson scored his first points of the game on an and-one dunk to extend the lead. He followed it up with an all-out flex.

Credit: Nicole Noel/ EVT Sports

Trey Pulliam showed his senior experience. He was automatic every time he left on one foot and floated one up in the lane. He showed leadership as he calmed down the team during tense moments. One moment was when Matt Bradley got called for a questionable charge call on a made basket. Pulliam rubbed Bradley’s shoulders and made him move on. He finished the game with 10 points.

Seiko was the leading scorer. He finished with 11 points and was essential to keep the Aztecs in the game.

“We’ve won championships here. We know what it takes to win a championship,” Seiko said. “There’s no time for excuses and no time to rest.”

Orlando Robinson is averaging over 32 points in his last two games. Against the Spartans, he imposed his size over the smaller defenders. But the Aztecs have been his kryptonite. In the previous two matchups, he averaged 13 points, shooting 30% from the field and four turnovers per contest.

But it was evident that Robinson, who is projected to be drafted next season, took this game personally. Last game, he did not take a shot for 14 minutes. Tonight, he was aggressive from the tip. In the first half, he had 10 points and three big offensive rebounds.

“They changed up how they moved off Orlando Robinson to try to keep us from doubling him,” Dutcher said before the game. In the first half, the Aztecs were unable to double team him once again.

In the second half, it was a similar story. SDSU attempted to double team but left Bulldogs shooters open beyond the arc. The game plan looked lost against a locked-in Robinson. The fix: Aguek Arop and Mountain West defensive player of the year, Nathan Mensah.

Arop was announced as a starter tonight accidentally by the announcer. He played like a starter against Robinson. He subbed into the second half and forced Robinson to miss shots, and he drew a charge.

Credit: Nicole Noel/ EVT Sports

Robinson praised Mensah’s defense after the game. “He’s a competitor. He’s quick with his feet and hands. He didn’t make it easy on me. Hats off to him.”

The Bulldogs went on an 11-3 scoring surge in the first half, which felt even bigger in this type of game. There was a four and half minute stretch where the Aztecs turned the ball over on six of seven possessions.

In the first half, the Aztecs had more turnovers (11) than made shots (9) but only trailed by three.

The Aztec offense in the first half can be summed up to two plays: Trey Pulliam floater from the free-throw line and Adam Seiko running open for three off a screen. These 10 points accounted for half of the Aztecs’ points.

One of the advantages of being a top-five seed in the Mountain West is these teams get the first day off in the tournament. On paper, the Bulldogs had an easy opponent. But San Jose State gave them everything they could handle. The game went to overtime, and it was back and forth throughout as the biggest lead was five points. It was the Bulldogs’ third consecutive game to go to overtime.

The Bulldogs starters had increased minutes last game. Robinson played 40 minutes, Anthony Holland played 45, and Leo Colimerio played 38.

The Aztecs attempted to fatigue the Bulldogs through their physical defense and full-court press off made baskets.

As the game went on, the Bulldogs looked exhausted. In the final 7 minutes, the Bulldogs made only two shots. Three different players played over 35 minutes.

Credit: Nicole Noel/ EVT Sports

“We definitely had a few guys who were shooting the ball very well, who couldn’t make them,” Coach Justin Hutson said after the game.

The Bulldogs have used multiple game plans against Bradley this season. In the first matchup, they denied him and let any other Aztec scorer beat them. The result was Bradley scoring two points on 1-of-8 shooting and the rest of the team shooting 53% in route to a 17 point victory. In the second matchup, Bradley wasn’t guarded to the same extent. However, in the second overtime, the Bulldogs essentially went to a Bradley zone. The result was one Aztec made field goal in five minutes.

Tonight, Bradley had a similar first-half performance to the full game he had against the Bulldogs in the first matchup. Fresno State stifled him, and there was clear frustration on his face. He went scoreless in the first half on only two shots. He finally scored a mid-range jumper two minutes into the second half. He looked frustrated for the entire 40 minutes. He finished with only seven points and appeared happy not to face the Bulldogs again this season.

“I was pressing a little bit too hard in the first half, not making good reads, playing outside of my game,” Bradley said.

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The Mountain West tournament thus far has matched the hype. The Aztecs’ seven-point win was the largest of the day as the other three games were decided on the final possession of the game.

The Aztec fans certainly showed up to show support for their team. Seiko and the players greatly appreciated in the postgame. Fans will have an opportunity to fly or drive out as the Aztecs will play Colorado State tomorrow night at 9:00 in the Mountain West semifinals.

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