Aztecs win 10th straight season opener with second-half scoring outburst

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

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Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

On the eve of Election Day, San Diego State tipped off its season with expectations as high as ever. Against the Cal State Fullerton Titans, they looked to cast their vote as one of the best teams in the country.

But the 18th-ranked team in the country projected to win the Mountain West and potentially make a deep NCAA tournament demonstrated that they have room to grow.

Excitement was in the air for the opening night of college basketball. Coach Brian Dutcher wanted an exhibition game against San Diego Christian to get the nerves out for the real opener. He said last game, all the players dunked in pre-game warm-ups to impress the crowd. It was again a dunk contest five minutes before tip-off.

But contrary to last week, they brought their excitement immediately to the game. Nathan Mensah won the jump ball, and Darrion Trammell swished a three on the first set play of the season. The Aztecs took the lead and never lost it, winning 80-57.

Regardless of the victory, there were early growing pains for a team with five newcomers. CSUF kept the game within arm’s reach for the entire first half. Both teams made the same number of field goals. SDSU went through scoring droughts, missed layups, and committed sloppy turnovers. Last year’s leading scorer and MW Newcomer of the year, Matt Bradley, did not make a field goal in the first half.

The second half featured an Aztec team showing off their potential. At the first media timeout, SDSU went on a 13-0 run featuring a deep Darrion Trammell three, intense ball pressure, and a Bradley dunk that erupted Viejas Arena for the first time this season. They rode this spark for the entire period. Before the nonscholarship players checked in, they shot 63% from the field.

Credit” Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

Lamont Butler said post-game, “I felt like we got more comfortable, started running a little bit more, got a couple more stops and turnovers, and it just opened up everything else.”

“Typical opener, you know, some good, some bad, and some stuff to work on,” Dutcher said.

Most Aztec fans can agree that SDSU’s struggles last season were due to a lack of scoring. The coaches made this a priority in the offseason by adding Trammell, who averaged 17.3 points last season at Seattle University.

He made a great Aztec debut by showing off his three-point shooting. He opened the second half by hitting three straight threes. He finished the game with 18 points on 6-for-7 shooting and looked Malachi Flynn-esque.

The Aztec guards were a two-headed dragon tonight. Butler was his normal self on defense, a pest. But he was also a tremendous playmaker. He filled out the stat sheet with 11 points, six assists – to one turnover, and four steals.

“We just feed off each other,” Trammell said.

“It’s fun playing with him,” Butler said in the postgame. “He can score it anytime in the game; he’s a willing passer, too; it’s going to be fun all year.”

In the exhibition, Dutcher used all his scholarship players; ten players received double-digit minutes. He is still looking to perfect his rotation. Tonight, he stuck with the same starting five. But after one minute, Jaedon LeDee immediately checked in after Keshad Johnson took an awkward fall and appeared to injure his shoulder. Dutcher said that Johnson played off adrenaline and will most likely be sore tomorrow on his shoulder. But he was not worried about his status on Friday.

Five of the new Aztecs saw minutes. A few of them would like to put their first half behind them.

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

LeDee found opportunities but did not capitalize in the first 20 minutes. He went 0-for-4 with two missed free throws. But he showed off in the second half displaying his strength with an and-one finish at the rim and continuing to dominate the paint over smaller defenders. He finished with 11 points and three assists.

“In the second half, you see what kind of physical presence he is around the basket,” Dutcher said. “He is impossible to deal with.”

Micah Parrish played a disappointing 11 first-half minutes with no made baskets. But he made a rainbow three-pointer entering the game in the second half and finished with five points.

Elijah Saunders saw his first game action at the 11-minute mark in the first half. He drew a charge after knocking down a 6-3 165-pound Titan in the post and was subbed out.

Regardless of the slow starts, SDSU sent in waves of players off the bench to battle the Titans. Ten players received at least nine minutes. Eventually, the Aztec fresh legs were overbearing for CSUF.

“I think we can wear teams down,” Trammell said. “We got a very deep team. Everyone does their own thing that they do, and that’s definitely going to carry us deep.”

Dutcher echoed the same sentiments. “Our depth won out in the end and that might be the formula for the season.”

Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

If there was one negative takeaway from the 102-52 dominating win against SD Christian, Dutcher said afterward, “we still need to defend better.” Tonight, the Titans started the game 3-for-13 with eight turnovers and immediately dug themselves into a hole. But they closed the half, shooting 57% with only two turnovers.

In the second half, the Aztec defense bounced back. The Titans went through a 7-minute scoring drought and were unable to handle the SDSU ball pressure. They finished the game shooting 39% from the field with 18 turnovers.

Dutcher said he told the team at halftime, “we will continue to guard at a high level, and that will eventually open up our offense.”

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Playing more team basketball is a goal for SDSU this season. With two playmaking point guards and more scoring talent, they can share the wealth. In the exhibition, SDSU had 24 assists to 38 made field goals. Tonight, they passed 18 assists to 28 made baskets, with Butler and LeDee leading the way in assists. Four different players finished in double figures.

Dutcher said in last week’s press conference, “We’re gonna get punched, and we’re gonna see who we are early in the year.” He alluded to the gauntlet of non-conference opponents that the Aztecs will face in November. On Friday, SDSU faces its first resume-building test, BYU, a rival that has won the matchup the previous two seasons.

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