On March 17, 2001, number one seed Stanford, led by three future NBA draft picks, took on Jameer Nelson and the number nine seed St. Joseph’s at Cox Arena for a spot in the Sweet 16. None of the players who went on to the NBA, however, were the star of the game; instead, it was Marvin O’Connor, who mesmerized the San Diego crowd. He scored 37 points, including 29 in the second half, to keep the underdogs close. When O’Connor fouled out, the capacity crowd rose to its feet in appreciation, giving O’Connor a standing ovation.
An otherwise unmemorable 2001 NCAA Tournament gave rise to an unforgettable performance. O’Connor’s heroics were not enough that day to lead his team to a win, but his game goes down as one of the best in San Diego basketball history.
Matt Mitchell joined O’Connor on the list of best games played in Viejas Arena Friday. Ironically, both players scored in the single digits points in the first half before turning in unbelievable second halves. O’Connor and Mitchell each carried their teams to close losses in what would have surely been blowouts otherwise. And the game each poured in will be relished long after the losses are forgotten.
Mitchell’s 35 point game was no cause for jubilation in the Aztec locker room, however. “We can take no celebration in Matt’s performance, “Coach Dutcher said, “because we lost the game. It was fun to watch Matt put us on his shoulders, but we did not get a win and (his performance) went for not.” Be that as it may, a non-conference loss in the middle of December should not dampen a brilliant performance from a future Aztec Hall of Famer.
Friday was the second 30 point game of Mitchell’s career and the first since a 31 point outing against Eastern Illinois as a freshman. The difference between the two games shows the way his game has grown in the past four seasons. The game against Eastern Illinois was only his fourth college contest, and he basically stood at the three-point line, waited for his teammates to find him, and hit seven threes on eleven attempts. On Friday, Mitchell was all over the court. He posted up smaller guards, drove past bigger players, and hit clutch threes. His monstrous dunk, following a steal, tied the game with just under two minutes left. It was not enough to bring a sixth win on the season, but it was enough to match an all-time great feat by a St Joe’s guard almost 20 years ago.
Just as San Diego State’s loss to BYU Friday should not damper Mitchell’s career game, it should also not diminish the team’s terrific start. Prior to the season, Coach Dutcher called this the most difficult non-conference schedule during his time on the Mesa. The opportunity to finish it with only one loss would have been welcomed before tip-off against UCLA.
Nonetheless, the loss to BYU stings because, with all due respect to the Cougars, SDSU had the most talent on the floor Friday. “I felt like we’re the better team, and we should have won,” Matt Mitchell remarked after his dominating 35 point performance, “but BYU earned their win.”
Before the game, we outlined three keys to the game. Re-examining them will give a clear picture of what went wrong against the Cougars.
Can SDSU exploit the pick and roll?
Of all of the keys to the game, the fact SDSU was unable to get anything working in the pick and roll was the most surprising. “This was a game where they weren’t going to leave Jordan Schakel.” Coach Dutcher explained following the game. “So it opened up more room for Tre (Pulliam) to drive and the post to roll, and we didn’t finish enough of those because there was no help in there.” Pulliam finished with three points on 1 – 9 shooting. Mensah was second on the team in scoring with nine but had only two shot attempts. He added five made free throws.
“Every game is different.” Coach Dutcher said. “Everybody plays us different … Every game is an adjustment. You know if everyone played us the same way, we could get comfortable and have the answers. … As the season goes on and when we get to the conference – because of all these good teams we’re playing – we’ll see how teams play us and what adjustments we have to make when we see games like this. It’s a learning experience, and we will learn our lessons today.”
What lessons could the Aztecs learn from today?
1. When a team plays the pick and roll the way BYU did by having their center sag deep in the paint, someone in addition to Pulliam needs to have the ball in his hands. Rarely did SDSU attempt jump shots directly following a screen. If teams are going to play Schakel as closely as they did, allowing him to play in the pick and roll might free him for clean looks. Matt Mitchell and Terrell Gomez, likewise, have the ability to shoot once a screen has been cleared. Allowing these players to work in the space Pulliam had Friday should give SDSU a better chance to succeed.
2. Coming into the season, SDSU’s lack of size was perceived as a potential issue for the team, but it had not been a problem until Friday. For much of the game, SDSU tried to match BYU’s size instead of forcing the Cougars to play small. It was not until the end that Dutcher and his coaching staff adjusted. Going small sparked the Aztec’s comeback.
“When they went big, and we went small,” Dutcher explained, “that’s where we went to Matt (Mitchell) on the perimeter, and he had a couple of threes. (When) he isolated their bigs. We started rolling (on offense) because we played that mismatch. I must do a better job getting us in a better rhythm.”
3. When playing teams with less athletic ability, the best offense is still effective against more athletic teams. Aside from Mitchell, SDSU was unable to create much offense against BYU’s defense. Some of that was due to a poor shooting night that led Mitchell to say he felt “the rim had a lid on it” for the rest of the team. But most was due to the Aztecs moving away from team basketball. “We need to do a better job in the first half (because) we didn’t execute as we could have on some of our play calls. We got discouraged and tried to create some of our own shots and did not work within the offense.”
Will yet another star lose its luster against SDSU’s defense?
Friday afternoon, Alex Barcello did what Chris Smith, Collin Welp, Colbey Ross, and Remy Martin failed to do. Score on the Aztecs. Before the game, we predicted this would be the toughest test for the Aztec defense because of how selective Barcello is exerting himself. True to form, the Cougar guard was remarkably efficient. He shot 7 –11 from the field.
When SDSU’s defense is not limiting the opposing players’ star, it shines a light on the offensive limitations of some of their defensive stalwarts. Barcello’s primary defenders, Pulliam and Adam Seiko, combined for nine points. SDSU, likewise, did not find a way to get Aguek Arop involved in the offense.
Can the Aztecs stop the hot hand?
In the final 7:14 of the game, with SDSU frantically coming back, BYU scored 20 points. Eight games from the free-throw line, Matt Haarms added two points on a jumper in the paint, and the rest were scored by senior guard Brandon Averette. Up until this point in the game, Averette was held scoreless. On the game’s deciding play, Pulliam went under a ball screen and left Averette open for a three-point shot. The bucket put BYU up four with 52 seconds remaining.
BYU’s balance around Barcello was on full display Friday. Eight players scored the 50 points Barcello did not score. In the previous two games,, when the hot hand developed, Matt Mitchell stepped in and stopped the player. With Mitchell expending so much energy on offense, he was unavailable to try and shut down Averette.