With 6:41 remaining in the game, SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher inserted Jaedon LeDee back into the game with the Aztecs clinging to a five-point lead, 68-63, which was once 15. LeDee joined fellow starter Reese Waters in the lineup and three reserves: Darrion Trammell, Jay Pal, and Miles Byrd.
That five played the remainder of the game and helped the Aztecs (11-2) beat 13th-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs (9-4), 84-74, in a raucous McCarthey Athletic Center where the home team was 88-1 in the last five years.
“I thought we played tough,” said Dutcher about his team’s performance. “There’s always Xs and Os things … but we found a way to continue to concentrate, still get stops, and make enough plays to get a win today, and this is a hard place to win.”
Waters (22 pts, 8-11 FGs, 3-5 3PT, 3-4 FT) and LeDee (20 pts, 5-12 FG, 1-1 3PT, 9-12 FT) led the way for the Aztecs, hitting big shot after big shot when the Bulldogs closed the lead to as low as three in the second half. LeDee also added three assists.
15 of Trammell’s 17 points (7-13 FG, 3-7 3PT) came in the first half to keep the Aztecs in the game. His previous game-high this season was 11.
Redshirt freshman Miles Byrd, who finished the game, had his best game as an Aztec, scoring 9 points and grabbing four rebounds in 23 minutes.
“Byrd came in tonight and finally showed what he is capable of and made some spectacular plays,” said Dutcher postgame.
When asked about keeping the reserves in for the final minutes of the game, Dutcher pointed to wanting to keep Byrd in because he was playing well, and he preferred Pal’s passing and length against the press.
“It’s all about being ready for your moment, and a lot of guys stepped up for their moment (tonight),” said Trammell postgame about the bench’s play.
Overall, the Aztecs shot 50% (32-64) from the field. The Bulldogs shot 42% (25-59).
Gonzaga’s three best players led the way for them in the contest. Wyoming transfer Graham Ike scored 20 points (8-13 FG, 4-6 FT) and grabbed ten rebounds, while Anton Watson added 16 points (6-10 FG, 3-5 FT). Creighton transfer Ryan Nembhard pitched in 15 points (5-14 FG, 0-5 3PT, 5-7 FT) and a game-high nine assists.
With the score tied at 44 early in the second half, the Aztecs broke open the game with an 18-3 run. A LeDee three-pointer started the run before Waters added a three of his own and a steal, and a layup. A minute later, the Zags’ Dusty Stromer was called for a technical foul for shoving Miles Byrd after Byrd was called for an over-the-back foul on an offensive rebound attempt.
Two Waters free throws and a Byrd layup provided the Aztecs the game’s first double-digit lead. Another Byrd layup, this time in transition on a euro-step reverse, extended to the Aztecs’ biggest lead to 15 at 62-47.
The Zags came to life on a Ben Gregg three-pointer, and their full-court press caused major issues for the Aztecs, as it typically does when trying to preserve leads. Lamont Butler turned the ball over on two consecutive possessions, and Trammell and Elijah Saunders combined for a ten-second violation a few plays later. Pretty soon, the lead was down to six, and the crowd was back into it.
Dutcher used Byrd and Pal to help break the press, but another turnover and Nembhard basket cut the lead to 3, 68-65. The Aztecs answered with back-to-back threes by Waters and Byrd between another Nembhard basket, and a LeDee layup in transition pushed the lead back to eight and finally gave the Aztecs the comfort needed to finish the victory.
The Bulldogs entered the game averaging 21 ppg in transition, but the Aztecs held them to only 14 tonight.
Waters came into the game as the only qualifying player to be perfect from the free throw line on 40 attempts but missed one of four attempts, which he said postgame was “frustrating” but acknowledged he was happy with the win. No Aztec has finished a season without a miss, and only two NCAA players have ever been perfect for a season with a minimum of 30 attempts.
Waters also spoke postgame about struggling the past week in practice about when to shoot and had conversations with several assistant coaches about just playing his game, telling him, “You’re a player; don’t play like a robot. Play off your instincts and play your game.” Waters noted it has been a challenge picking his spots to be aggressive in his first few games as an Aztec.
The Aztecs bench scored 32 points against only 11 from the Bulldogs bench and outscored them in the paint 40-36.
The first half saw a lot of short runs by each team, which led to six lead changes. The Zags used two different 6-0 runs early in the game to take a six-point advantage behind five straight buckets in the paint and two 3-pointers to start the game.
The Aztecs switched up their defense in the post, sending immediate double teams against Ike, and were able to slow down the paint attacks. On offense, Trammell came off the bench and fueled the Aztecs on a 10-0 run to take a four-point lead at 23-19. Trammell knocked down his first four shots, including two from downtown, on his way to 15 points in the first half.
“Honestly, before the game, I felt like this year, (I had) a lot of downs, been injured, so (it was) a great game to have a breakout, so I just had that confidence going in,” Trammell noted.
The Zags responded immediately with a 7-0 run capped off by an alley-oop pass from Nembhard to Watson that got the crowd on its feet.
As the Aztecs offense went cold, not scoring and missing seven straight shots from the 8:12 mark until 3:46 (5:26 of game action), the Bulldogs’ 8-0 run provided them their biggest lead of the half at eight.
It was the Aztecs turn this time, finishing the half on a 7-0 run to erase a six-point deficit and take a one-point lead (38-37) into halftime. Trammell knocked in a deep three with the shot clock about to expire, and some nifty passes in the paint led to easy baskets.
The Aztecs only turned the ball over twice in the first half and scored ten points off five Gonzaga turnovers.
The Aztecs took the overall series lead, 3-2, over the Bulldogs with a win, including taking two of three on the road in The Kennel. The teams will meet in San Diego next year to complete the home-and-home series.
Coming into the game, the Aztecs were only 1-2 in true road games this season and 0-2 in Quad 1 games. This win cements a great non-conference schedule for the Aztecs.
SDSU will begin Mountain West Conference play by hosting Fresno State on January 3 at 7:30 pm on FS1.
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America’s Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.