It was obvious during warmups. Anyone familiar with the history of the SDSU BYU rivalry would be stunned at the role reversal. For decades, SDSU has had to contend with finding ways to rebound and push the larger BYU players away from the basket. On Friday, The Aztecs significantly outsized the Cougars.
BYU’s Shawn Bradley, Rafael Araujo, Eric Mika, Mekeli Wesley, Keena Young, Brandon Davies, and a whole host of less memorable centers have suited up against SDSU over the years, frequently bullying the Cougars to victory.
“We’ve had some big teams, you know, thinking back to when they had a really good team, beat us twice in the regular season, but we had Billy White, and we had Malcolm Thomas and Carwell and Tim Shelton,” SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher said. “We’ve had some big guys, they’ve had big guys too, but this year maybe they’re not quite as big as they’ve been in the past. When you throw a guy like Jaedon Ledee out there and Nate, and you bring AG and Keshad, and I got a lot of big bodies and a lot of depth at that position. And I think we’ve worn teams down over the first couple of games.”
SDSU’s advantage was immediately felt. 6’10 Nathan Mensah easily won the tip, and 6’7 Keshad Johnson caught a pass under the basket for an easier score. Even after the Cougars came out hot and opened a ten-point advantage, the Aztecs patiently and methodically bullied BYU into submission.
Early in the season, the 2022-2023 Aztecs differentiate themselves from previous iterations by the skilled height they can run out on the court in waves.
“We just wanted to show our presence throughout the game,” Mensah said postgame. “We knew the advantage that we had with myself, Jaedon, AG, Keshad. We knew as time goes on … we were going to capitalize on that.”
“Nate hit it on the head,” LeDee said immediately after Mensah. “We’re real big. We want to play big. Our goal – we talk about it every day in practice and before the game – we just want to wear them down. There’s a lot of time we got to the end of the game to get the win.”
BYU jumpers, on target at the beginning of each half when breaks gave them a reprieve from the constant pounding, went off target as the game wore on and the Cougars wore down. BYU started a combined 12-17 (71%) from the field during the first five minutes of each period, outscoring the Aztecs by 13 during those stretches. SDSU dominated the other 30 minutes of the contest, punishing BYU by 20 points and holding them to 16-44 (36%) from the field.
Like a heavyweight prize fight, SDSU’s continual body blows eventually buckled the knees and the will of their smaller opposition.
Up ten in the first half, BYU inserted 6’11 Noah Waterman to match up with LeDee. 23 seconds and three fouls later, he sat back down on the bench. Body blow.
SDSU down six at the end of the first period: a layup and a blocked shot by LeDee, plus a steal by Mensah, kept the Aztecs close. Body blow.
The Aztecs trailing by ten in the second half: Mensah scored a traditional three-point play. LeDee recorded a steal and a pair of offensive rebounds to reduce the lead to four. Body blow.
After narrowing the lead to four, Arop scored a layup on an offensive rebound. Body blow
With each made bucket, Aztec Nation grew louder and louder, waiting for the knockout blow.
It finally came.
Up one with three minutes remaining, Darrion Trammell drove to his right and dished a beautiful assist to Mensah for a layup. Inexplicably, Lamont Butler and Matt Bradley did not get back on defense, allowing BYU center Fousseyni Traore to race behind them for what appeared to be an easy breakaway dunk. Out of nowhere, Mensah beat every Aztec downcourt, met Traore at the rim, and knocked the Cougars out.
On Friday, SDSU did what they should do to smaller teams. They used their size to impose their will on their opponents. That they did it to the Cougars, a team that has used a similar recipe frequently in the rivalry, made the performance extra sweet. SDSU bullied the BYU bullies.
“It’s part of having an older team,” Dutcher explained. “Younger teams might get frustrated they’re down, and they’re looking for answers. Our guys know the answers. We tell them, ‘You already know the answers. You have to perform and deliver them.’ They’re veterans. They’ve been in a lot of situations, a lot of games. They don’t get too high or low. If they’re down or they’re up, they play pretty consistently.”
Quick Takes on SDSU’s victory over BYU
– SDSU’s media relations team is top-notch. The gratitude Seth Greenberg, Andy Katz, and Bill Walton paid to Jenna Meyer, SDSU’s Media Relations Coordinator, as they left for the evening stood out. Those three watch games all over the country, and they were clearly impressed with Jamie McConeghy, Richard Stern, and company.
– The Aztecs only shot 40% from the field and still put up 82 points. A lot of that was due to their 26 points from the free throw line, but it shows how potent the offense can be because they topped 80 in regulation without shooting the ball well. Postgame Dutcher said his team is “non-connected” on the court so far. Scary thought.
– Credit the team’s intelligence. They shot 2-10 from three in the first half and only shot four the rest of the way. Their decided advantage was inside and they exploited it.
– BYU was whistled for 26 fouls. It could have been double that amount. The Cougars maimed anyone around the basket, with or without the ball. It was a smart tactic. Without the constant holding and hacking, SDSU’s inside strength would have been even more pronounced. They bet correctly that, at a certain point, the refs would stop calling fouls on them.
– Matt Bradley should have led the Aztecs in free throw attempts. He was aggressive and played downhill the entire night. The only explanation for how he was not rewarded with trips to the line is the refs used up their whistle allotment on other possessions.
– Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell are terrific defenders. This is not a new discovery, but they hounded BYU all night. The Cougars committed 20 turnovers. Eight by starting point guard Rudi Williams.
-Butler is second in the NCAA with 10 steals. He would likely lead the nation but was in foul trouble on Friday.
– SDSU had eight turnovers in the first half and only two in the second. Butler had three before the first media timeout but played turnover-free ball for ten minutes before committing a fourth with five minutes remaining in the opening period. It was his final one of the game.
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– For all of their terrific plays, the Aztecs’ bigs have trouble guarding on the perimeter.
– In the offseason, SDSU assistant JayDee Luster said Arop has a knack for making winning plays. That was on display on Friday. He had a calming presence after subbing into the game following BYU’s opening push.
– BYU actually held an 18-12 points in the paint advantage in the first half. SDSU countered with an eight-point edge in the second half.
– Keshad Johnson’s shoulder injury against Fullerton on Monday bothered him Friday. He also missed three practices leading to limited playing time and some lapses of bad play on the court.
– Darrion Trammell is a sensational basketball player. His feel for the game is next level. He was clutch all night.
– As loud as the Viejas Arena crowd got on Friday, it could have gotten even crazier. Bradley missed what would have been one of the top dunks in the building’s history with the team trailing 67-65.
– Viejas Arena is as good of an environment to watch a game as any. The crowd on Friday was sensational.
“Seeing (the crowd at Viejas), how can you not come out and play hard every day for them fans because they are giving me everything they’ve got,” LeDee explained. “The first game, I had to settle into it because I had never seen anything like that at home. It was just amazing.”
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.