The streaking Aztecs are getting hot at the right time. They earn their fifth straight win with a dominating victory over Fresno State. Aztecs win 61-44.
Chad Baker-Mazara said it best after the game. “We’ve got a team full of dogs, this is not a one-man team. Everybody can come any day and drop 20 because we’re all trained and ready for that.”
Tonight, the Aztecs needed to be dogs because a matchup against Fresno State is always a dog fight.
Dutcher knew what he was getting himself into before the game, “I think it will be two really good defensive teams, trying to manufacture enough points to win the game,”
Fresno State is led by former SDSU assistant coach Justin Hudson and former player Tim Shelton at assistant coach. The former Aztecs have attempted to emulate the SDSU culture with gritty, hard-nosed defense. The Bulldogs are the second-best defense in the Mountain West. Oppose that with the number one ranked Aztec defense and coaches that know each other well, the matchup is set up for a defensive showdown.
The Fresno State defense posed many challenges for the Aztecs early on. They offered no open looks, and even when SDSU did have space, they were out of offensive rhythm. The opening ten minutes featured six Aztec points, 27% shooting, 0-for-5 from three, and four turnovers.
The teams parallel each other as they both feature two Mountain West First-team players. On paper, both teams are structured the same and have similar game-plans through the familiarity with one another.
But after a rough beginning, the next thirty minutes, SDSU used a strategy they have not used all season, score without Matt Bradley.
“People ask the question, can we win when Matt doesn’t score?” Coach Brian Dutcher said. “The answer is yes, yes we can.”
“The way Fresno was playing defense was they were more focused on Matt Bradley, and they were leaving guys open like me, Joshua, and Trey,” Baker-Mazara said.
The NBA is in its all-star break right now and tonight was the three-point contest. Baker-Mazara clearly wanted a part of the all-star festivities. He made three consecutive three-pointers in the first half. He scored 13 points in nine minutes. Through Baker-Mazara’s production, Keshad Johnson alley-oop slams, and fundamental basketball, the Aztecs went on a 17-2 run. Baker-Mazara finished with 19, an Aztec career-high, and four threes.
“I’ve been feeling like my shot is coming in. I’ve been putting in that extra work,” Baker-Mazara said. “I was expecting them to go in.”
When Dutcher was asked before the game what he remembers from last season’s matchups against the Bulldogs, Dutcher joked that he recalls having Matt Mitchell, Jordan Schakel, and Terrell Gomez. But he also said, “Trey Pulliam had a coming-out party where he hit his real stride down the stretch.”
Tonight, Pulliam had one of his best performances this season. He led fast breaks, threw multiple alley-oop passes, and played hard-nosed defense as he helped force a 10-second half-court violation. His biggest highlight, which will be in Aztec practice tape for years to come, was sprinting to strip the Bulldog dribbler on a wide-open fast break, then hitting a three the following possession. He finished with nine points and eight assists. With two minutes to go, he appeared to roll his ankle as he gingerly jogged afterward.
“Trey played a great floor game,” Dutcher said. “He’s starting to realize that he’s a darn good playmaker.”
Before the game, Dutcher noted Johnson’s growth on the offensive end. “He’s running better. He’s more dangerous in transition,” Dutcher said. “In the low post, he has the ability to back down and score over a defender. Keshad continues to grow all parts of his game.”
Tonight, he continued to evolve as he made a three. He is now 2-for-24 on the year. He worked his game in the paint and soared for dunks and offensive rebounds. He finished the game with 13 points and five rebounds. The Aztecs are undefeated in Johnson’s ten career games, where he’s been in double digits.
The Bulldogs did not attempt the Aztecs’ strategy of scoring without their dominant scorer, Orlando Robinson.
The Aztec defense decided to flex their muscles on a Bulldogs team that isn’t at their level. Through 30 minutes, the Bulldogs had 30 points. Fresno State finished shooting 34% from the field, making only 14 shots, only one two-point field goal in the second half and had 14 turnovers.
Coming into the game, stopping Robinson was priority number one for the Aztecs. Kenpom ranks Robinson as the fifth-best player in the NCAA, and he will potentially be drafted high next year with his unique skill set for a seven-foot big. Dutcher said before the game, “He can back you down, shoot over you, he can sweep and face and drive you. If you’re slow getting to him, he can shoot the three. He’s a dangerous, dangerous player, and he’ll get our full attention.”
The Aztecs’ best defender Nathan Mensah recorded his second foul only three minutes into the game. Tahirou Diabate filled his void and had important defensive minutes, but he also picked up two fouls in the first half. Joshua Tomaic was the third defender for Robinson, but he excelled on the offensive end. He had seven first-half points, which included a deep three-pointer.
“We have great depth, and I said that’s going to be a difference-maker for us as we go down the stretch,” Dutcher said.
The Aztecs made Robinson’s night hell, and the frustration was visible on the future NBA players face. He finished the game with nine points, four turnovers, on 3-for-10 shooting.
Mensah’s habit this season has been losing game rhythm after getting in early foul trouble. In the second half, he made a dramatic impact. He created offense, rebounded, blocked shots with two hands, and played some of his best defense of the season on Robinson.
Bradley came into the night averaging almost 23 points in conference play, the most in Aztec history. Tonight, he scored a season-low two points due to constant double teams and lack of offensive rhythm.
He was quieter offensively, but his presence was still felt. He was a playmaker, drew charges, played intense defense, and remained poised through the offensive frustration.
The Aztec bench has put up at least 19 points in four straight games. Dutcher said before the game that bench scoring will be critical, and the non-starters need to stay loose with an NBA mentality. “There’s guys in the NBA who make their first shot off the bench. You have to be prepared to get off the bench and play at a high level,” Dutcher said.
The Aztecs took this to heart. In the first half, the bench outscored the starters 20-10. They finished with 29 bench points.
The Aztecs are amid a brutal stretch playing four of their last six games on the road over a 15-day stretch. A road test against Boise State is next on Tuesday night which may be one of the biggest games of the season. The Aztecs are one behind the Broncos in the loss column. They will also look to avenge their last-minute loss, where they scored only 37 points after a two-week COVID pause.
“We’re going to try to play ourselves into this title race,” Dutcher said.
With Colorado State losing to UNLV tonight, the Aztecs move into sole possession third place in the conference with tonight’s win.