A solid but unspectacular non-conference schedule was followed up with a very similar result for the San Diego State Aztecs in their conference opener.
While they won by 16, they failed to blow the brakes off a clearly overmatched Air Force team. Matt Bradley looked the best he has this season, putting up 27 on 9-for-12 shooting, but the Aztecs couldn’t score enough to put the game away early.
The Aztecs dominated early, going up 15-2 inside the first five minutes, shooting 86% from the floor. All five starters were involved, with everyone scoring before the first media timeout. It seemed that every shot that Air Force took rimmed out, while everything San Diego State was shooting swished through the net. After the game, Matt Bradley discussed the positives of the winter break, saying that, “It was a much-needed break, a lot of things happened, a lot of good things.”. He credited time with his girlfriend, family, newborn niece, and new puppy for his strong performance.
Air Force cut the lead to five with a quick 9-0 run midway through the first half, as some of their bench players began to match up with the Aztecs bench. San Diego State’s defense was uncharacteristically unfocused and soft inside, with the Falcons finding far too many open lay-ups and easy routes to the basket. The Aztecs then began to shoot themselves in the foot with turnovers and missed shots, but the Falcons couldn’t cut into their lead. However, when the Aztecs needed it most, they found the hot hand. Matt Bradley sank a three-pointer for his 13th point of the first half to bust the Aztecs out of a 4:43-second scoring drought. With the energy back in Viejas Arena, San Diego State closed out the half on a 11-3 run, putting their comfortable advantage up to 13.
Air Force’s coach Joe Scott could be heard telling his players that, “We need to be more ******* physical.”, and it was for good reason. During the first half, San Diego State out-rebounded the Falcons 15-9 while also adding two blocks. The 6’7” Rytis Petraitis and 6’7” Beau Becker were tasked with handling 6’10” Nathan Mensah, which was a strong height advantage for the Aztecs. However, Keshad Johnson aaa the most physical Aztec down low, snagging four first-half rebounds, including two off the offensive glass.
The second half was more of the same, as Matt Bradley added two more three-pointers in the first five minutes, while the suffocating Aztec defense helped to make it a 19-5 run across halftime. While the Aztecs defense forced three straight contested three-pointers, two of which were at the end of the shot clock, the Falcons hit all three to bring the game back within 11.
With the Falcons down just ten, the Aztecs immediately responded. Adam Seiko nailed an open three before Jaedon LeDee picked up a three-point play, growing the lead to 16. Aguek Arop found Seiko wide open for three more, sending the Aztecs on a 9-0 run that all but sealed the game. Seiko discussed his role coming off the bench and hitting shots post-game, saying that, “I’ve been doing it for a while now, and all I can say is that it is just the hard work put in, being confident in myself and my teammates trusting me and looking for me on the floor.”.
Matt Bradley kept adding on more, hitting his career-best sixth three-pointer before hitting the following free throw to convert the four-point play. Postgame, Bradley said that he had “Played free out there” and that it was “Just one of those games.”. The Falcons were throwing everything at Bradley, but he went 6-for-7 from beyond the arc, nearly all of which were contested looks.
While the win was comfortable, there was still a lot to improve on for the Aztecs. They had just ten assists, and their free-throw woes continued. They got to the line 18 times but converted just 12. Both Bradley and Seiko said they needed to be more effective from the charity stripe, with Seiko saying, “There are no excuses. They are free throws. They’re free.”. Air Force is far below the cream of the crop in the competitive Mountain West, and the Aztecs will need to continue to improve before their New Year’s Eve matchup with UNLV, which Brian Dutcher described as a “completely different game.”.
Dutcher talked about the importance of winning on the road, something that didn’t happen in any of the five games in the Mountain West. He said, “You want to win your home games and split on the road, and that’s a good recipe for winning a conference.”. It’ll be a tough challenge for the Aztecs to go into Las Vegas and win.