Lamont Butler was voted the Defensive Player of the Year by the media and selected to the All-Defensive Team by the coaches earlier this week. Heading into today’s matchup against PG Isaiah Stevens, arguably the best player in the conference, the focus for Butler would surely be his ability to slow down the Rams’ star.
While the Aztecs’ defense collectively held Stevens to only 16 points on 5 of 20 (25%) shooting, Butler’s major contribution to the game was his offensive aggressiveness that unlocked a very lethargic SDSU attack.
That aggressiveness early came from the perimeter. Butler missed his first four shots from the field, including a contested mid-range jumper on the first possession of the game that missed the rim and a wide-open 3-pointer on the Aztecs’ next trip. Two more 3-pointers clanked off the rim as the first half progressed.
As the rest of his teammates also struggled to find any rhythm, Butler was undeterred. He put his head down on several occasions and drove to the basket. On two occasions, Butler was fouled and made 3 of 4 free throw attempts.
“I missed a couple of shots early, and I knew I had to get to the rim,” said Butler postgame. “Just doing that got my game going from there, and coach has been harping on that just since the start of the year. Just get to the rim. You’re going to find it from there. Got to the free-throw line. Got my rhythm and just able to make plays and hit shots.”
Those shots came in the final minutes of the first half. With the Aztecs trailing 23-21 with less than four minutes remaining, Butler rejected a screen towards the middle of the floor, crossed over to his left, drove to the hoop, and finished with his left hand while drawing a foul on Baylor Hebb. The ensuing free throw gave the Aztecs their first lead.
Two possessions later, Butler took Stevens off the dribble after taking a handoff on the right wing and once again finished off the glass with his left hand, helping the Aztecs to a two-point advantage heading into intermission.
Butler’s first half consisted of eight points (2-6 FG, 0-3 3pt, 4-5 FT), two rebounds, and zero assists or turnovers while drawing three fouls in 16 minutes. His +2 was the only positive +/- out of SDSU’s starters. Reserves Micah Parrish and Jaedon LeDee led with +9.
Butler’s second half consisted of only three made field goals, but each one came at a pivotal moment when the Aztecs desperately needed it.
An 8-2 run by the Rams early in the second half gave them a two-point lead. With the Aztecs’ offense reeling, Butler came off the right corner, took a handoff from LeDee, and immediately rose up and drained a three-pointer from the wing as Taviontae Jackson went under the screen.
Later, the Aztecs took a 45-41 lead and appeared to be one basket away from taking control of the game. The Rams responded with a 7-0 run fueled by turnovers from Keshad Johnson and Nathan Mensah and a Stevens 3-pointer. Suddenly, the pro-SDSU crowd began to get very uneasy.
Butler responded with another three-pointer, this time on the left wing, to tie the game at 48 after a screen confused the Rams’ defense and left him open. After two Matt Bradley free throws, Butler drove into the lane on a fast break. His first attempt was blocked, but he collected his own rebound and put home the second chance opportunity to give the Aztecs a four-point cushion.
Butler’s second half resulted in eight points (3-8 FG, 2-3 3pt, 0-0 FT), three rebounds, one assist, and one turnover in 17 minutes. His backcourt mate, Darrion Trammell, struggled through a scoreless night and only played six minutes in the second frame.
The Aztecs scored their last seven points of the game from the free throw line and held on to beat the Rams, 64-61.
Butler led the team with 16 points and 14 field goal attempts, six more than any other teammate. In a game where his perimeter teammates played timid and lackadaisical, Butler’s willingness to attack off the dribble and take the open shots when presented was crucial to the victory.
“He is probably the one guy I thought early in the game we didn’t do a good enough job on,” said Colorado State head coach Niko Medved postgame. “He is an athletic, downhill, aggressive guy, and the game plan on him is you have got to try to contain him and keep him out of the lane. When he gets a shoulder on you, he is really difficult. He made a big three late for them when they needed it. He has been in these moments throughout his whole career, so he knows what to do.”
On the other end, while Stevens started slowly from the field, he still dished out eight assists with zero turnovers.
“When you play a really good defense like San Diego State, trying to force the issue isn’t always the way to go about that,” Stevens said postgame. “As the point guard, I’ve always felt going up against them, the more I could get my teammates involved and get them open looks, the more it will open up for me just because I feel like they’ve always had so much attention around me.”
Stevens finally got it going late in the second half, and his final shot came as close as possible without going in to tie the game. While defending Stevens is a team effort considering the amount of switching the Aztecs do on the perimeter, Butler took on the primary assignment and flustered Stevens into a scoreless first half on six missed shots.
“The plan was really to just try to deny him the ball, make every catch hard, and then on every shot try to contest, make every shot hard,” said Butler. “He is a great player. Hard to do, but it was more of a team effort, honestly. It wasn’t just me or Adam (Seiko). It was a team effort, and we got it done.”
Despite Stevens’ resurgence in the second half, needing 20 shots to score 16 points is a poor 0.8 points per shot ratio. He also shot considerably below his season averages of 48% from the field and 38% from 3.
“They are one of the best defenses I’ve ever played,” added Stevens.
While Butler’s heroics led the Aztecs to victory, the contributions from reserve Jaedon LeDee, both early in the game and in the final minutes, should not go unnoticed.
After the starters fell behind 8-0, head coach Brian Dutcher summoned three reserves off his bench. LeDee was among them.
In the next three minutes and 29 seconds of game action, Dutcher ran the offense through LeDee, who collected four points, two assists, and one rebound leading the Aztecs on a 9-4 run to get within one point.
“We just slowed down,” said Matt Bradley postgame about how the team turned it around. “We kind of sped up in the beginning, I think, with the energy in the building, our fans being there. And once we slowed down the tempo and started playing our game, we got back in there.”
Late in the game, Dutcher trusted LeDee to be on the court as the team came out of a timeout with under four minutes remaining. LeDee was fouled twice and made 3 of 4 attempts, including two with 1:20 remaining to put the Aztecs ahead by one point, a lead they would not relinquish.
Overall, LeDee finished with ten points (3-5 FG, 4-6 FT), eight rebounds, three assists, and three blocks, and was a +13 on the floor (second best behind Micah Parrish’s +15). It was not all smooth for LeDee, as he led the team with five turnovers (no other player had more than two), an area he will need to clean up for the semifinal matchup against San Jose State.
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.