Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to March Madness.
“It’s March, man, ain’t no time for, this hurts, I’m tired,” Joshua Tomaic said. “It’s March, so only the tough teams survive.”
Nothing about Fresno State vs. San Diego State was easy. The players, coaches, and fans are walking out of the arena exhausted after watching a back and forth double-overtime finish.
Through 31 minutes, the two teams played a physical and gritty game. The Bulldogs had only made three threes, and the offense was ugly to watch. But suddenly, in a two-minute stretch, they could not miss. They went on a 12-2 run that featured three threes to take a five-point lead.
The next seven minutes, the Bulldogs held the lead in a dogfight.
Matt Bradley, the senior who didn’t celebrate tonight, did what he has done all year. He kept the Aztecs in winning distance. Bradley had a tough finish off the glass in the lane to take the lead with two minutes left. The following possession, he got a steal; then he drew a charge on a Bulldog. He extended the lead to three on a fadeaway jumper.
With 20 seconds left and up by three points, the Aztecs called a timeout. Dutcher had to decide to foul or to not foul. There was no foul. After a tremendous defensive possession, Junior Ballard found an opening and hit a three-pointer with less than a second left to send the game to overtime.
Coach Brian Dutcher says the plan was to foul under 10 seconds. Trey Pulliam attempted to foul, but the official made no call.
In the first overtime, it was the Bradley show and one critical mistake.
Bradley scored the first six points of overtime, and the Bulldogs were on the ropes with over a minute left. But Keshad Johnson overthrew Bradley on a pass, and the Bulldogs had numbers in a fast break. After a missed three, Orlando Robinson got the offensive rebound and scored with a foul. Robinson tied the game up on a free throw, and Nathan Mensah fouled out.
“I’m grateful for my teammates and coaches,” Johnson said. “They were able to get me out of the mindset of worrying about that play and moving on to the next one.” Johnson bounce-backed with a heroic block at the end of double OT.
In double overtime, the Bulldogs had enough of Bradley. They doubled every time he touched the ball.
With 10 seconds left, the Aztecs were in a similar position to their game against Boise State. Up one with two free throws, this time Trey Pulliam missed both. The Bulldogs had a three-point attempt to win, but it fell short.
The Aztecs made one field goal in the second overtime and won 65-64.
“There were enough mistakes made, but we didn’t drop our heads,” Coach Brian Dutcher said. “The assistant coaches just kept saying. We’re going to win this game, next play.”
It was costume night for “The Show,” who were the loudest they have been all season in a sold-out section. But the Aztecs did not imitate their fans by putting on a disguise. They stuck with what works. Normally, Coach Brian Dutcher starts the seniors on their last home game. But he knew the importance of the game tonight. He stuck with the same lineup that has worked all season.
The decision made sense. If he started the seniors, the starters would have been one guard and four big men.
Last season, the Aztecs elected to have a private ceremony with fans, not in Viejas Arena. They had an important game against Boise State and did not need the gameday distractions. Tonight, the Aztecs did not have that luxury. The five seniors, Tahirou Diabate, Tomaic, Pulliam, Aguek Arop, and Nathan Mensah, were all given special moments to ignite Viejas Arena.
The senior night festivities can be a distraction to some teams. But the Aztecs are accustomed to leaving their fans with a win at the end of the season. Since 2005, the Aztecs are 16-1 on senior night. However, the one loss was to former Aztec assistant coach Justin Hutson and the Bulldogs.
“They’re always emotional and fun,” Dutcher said before the game. “Hopefully, it doesn’t detract from us having a good start and getting too caught up in that.”
The senior night was not a distraction. The Aztecs were fueled off the energy and started the game shooting 6-for-12 from the field.
But the Bulldogs led by Hutson and former Aztec Tim Shelton came with a great game plan against the SDSU offense. In the first half, SDSU went on a field goal drought that lasted almost seven minutes, and they finished the half, shooting 26% from the field after their hot start. The shooting did not get any easier. SDSU finished the game shooting 36% from the field.
But the gritty Aztec defense matched the Bulldogs. Fresno State shot 34% from the field and 16 turnovers.
As far as the graduating seniors go, they all varied in their contributions but were all essential to the victory.
Diabate was a difference-maker.
With Mensah picking up two early fouls and fouling out in overtime, Diabate had a bigger responsibility on his senior night. He was everything Dutcher could ask for from his senior backup center. He immediately made an impact as he crashed the offensive glass and scored a put-back basket. He then grabbed three more offensively over a Bulldogs defense that is seventh in the nation in denying offensive rebounds. He drew constant attention and found himself at the free-throw line three separate times.
Mensah’s senior night did not get off to the best start. The special moment of his senior night walk out came with a distraction from the loving Aztec fans as they reigned down the chant, “One more year!”
Then as the game started, he picked up two fouls in less than two minutes. This was almost identical to the first matchup against the Bulldogs.
But in the second half, the senior made the highlight of the game. Off a Johnson missed free throw, he collected the offensive rebound and threw down a thunderous dunk while getting fouled. He then stared into the cameraman.
But after the dunk, he picked up his third and fourth fouls in a span of ten seconds. He then fouled out in the first overtime.
Tomaic didn’t have much of a scoreboard impact. But he did grab one of the biggest rebounds of the game over Orlando Robinson at the end of the first overtime. He also played critical minutes in the second overtime covering Robinson. He was a part of the biggest defensive possession of the game where Johnson blocked the Bulldogs chance to take the lead with 13 seconds left in the second OT.
Tomaic was honest in his postgame interview. At the end of regulation, he reflected that this was his final game in Viejas. He thanked an unknown spirit for giving him an opportunity in overtime.
“I was able to finish the game on the floor, and I’m thankful for that,” Tomaic said.
It may have been senior night for Pulliam, but Dutcher was not going to take it easy on him. In the first half, Jordan Campbell of the Bulldogs had two back-back thunderous dunks. One was an alley-oop where Pulliam may have been slow to get back into transition. Dutcher was fuming; he called an immediate timeout and was stomping on the court.
But Pulliam being the confident senior that he is, did not let it phase him. Like the Wyoming game, Pulliam took a floater in the lane to give the Aztecs a three-point lead at the end of regulation.
There was a shirtless group of fans in “The Show.” They were in support of Arop as they chanted “AG,” loud enough for the whole arena to hear. He was fueling off the energy. He was the lead man on the full-court press, and he made difficult shots over Bulldog defenders.
Unfortunately, his senior night had a frustrating ending in the first half. Fighting for a rebound, he took a hard fall. He immediately subbed himself out and was looked at by the trainer.
“I think Keshad fell on top of him, and he bent his neck back,” Dutcher said. “He was doing better but not to the point where he could come back into the game.”
The first matchup featured Matt Bradley’s worst scoring performance. He scored two points on 1-of-8 shooting due to ball denial, Bulldog double teams, and never finding his rhythm. Tonight, he was his dominant self, especially late in the game as he asked for the ball in isolations. He finished the game with 26 points and was the only Aztec in double figures.
Robinson is the leader of this Bulldogs team. He ranks as the sixth-best player in the nation, according to Kenpom. He is averaging almost 19 points and eight rebounds a game. He was shut down in the first matchup scoring only nine points on 3-of-10 shooting, and he had four turnovers. But in his two games after playing us, he averaged 27 points and eight rebounds.
“The beauty of all defensive game plans is keeping the offense off-balance. If you let Orlando get comfortable, he’ll pick you apart,” Dutcher said before the game. “If he knows (the double team) is not coming, he’ll go one on one and score.”
Robinson was certainly off balance. Through 14 minutes, he was yet to take a shot. He never was able to find his rhythm. He scored 17 points, but he was 4-for-13 from the field.
If the season ended today, the Aztecs would face Fresno State in the first round of the Mountain West tournament. Robinson is praying for another opponent. Even with Mensah playing less minutes, the collective unit of Diabate, Tomaic, Arop, and Aztec guards poking at the ball gave Robinson trouble all night.
Jordan Campbell exceled for the Bulldogs. Campbell de-committed from San Diego State, and the fans let him know by booing him when he touched the ball. Mensah expressed the Aztec fans emotions by stuffing one of Campbell’s layups on the backboard. The best thing Campbell did for the Aztecs was fouling out in regulation. He finished with 19 points.
San Diego State will now travel to Reno, Nevada, to conclude the regular season against the Wolfpack. The Aztecs could be playing for the two or three seed, depending on what happens in the Colorado State vs. Boise State game.