Two weeks ago, New Mexico was the last unbeaten team in the nation, crept into the national rankings, and appeared to be the biggest threat in the conference. A team that was 13-19 the previous season and won only five conference games. But they retained a dangerous backcourt, added transfer Morris Udeze and significantly improved their defense.
Since their 14-0 start, they dropped their last two games in the Mountain West and found themselves in sixth place in the conference with a streaking SDSU team in front of them in hostile Viejas Arena.
But the Lobos, with three scorers averaging over 16 points per game, were not fazed by the moment. They lit up the scoreboard with their guard duo and won the game 76-67.
“It’s college basketball, you’re playing a lot of games, and you’re gonna lose games,” Coach Brian Dutcher said. “We lost to a team that’s 16-2 today at home, and I thought we had a chance.”
“We have a target on our back in this league, everybody wants to beat us, whether we’re on the road or at home; it’s like the biggest game of the year,” Adam Seiko said after the game. “We know how good we are, we’re still at the top of the Mountain West right now, we can’t get complacent…. We’ll have an off day tomorrow and get back in the gym on Monday, and all these guys, they go hard, they don’t take the game for granted, and I know we’ll bounce back from this.”
On a night where guard play was paramount, KJ Feagin, the starting point guard of one of the most dominant SDSU backcourts (2020 with Malachi Flynn), was in the arena.
The Lobos are led by Jamal Mashburn and Jaelen House, averaging almost 35 points a game together.
New Mexico certainly won the backcourt matchup. In the first half, the duo combined for 25 points. Mashburn seemed to convert every shot he attempted in the opening frame, then it was House’s turn in the second half.
At the 8:20 mark in the first half, House caught fire. It might have been raining outside in San Diego, but he made it rain from inside the gym. He hit a technical free throw to reclaim the lead, then hit countless open shots. In the second half, he scored 21 points. He finished with 29. The duo combined for 51.
“They stepped up big time to close the game, they’re two really good players,” Matt Bradley said.
From a box score perspective, the game was even. The Lobos made two more field goals, grabbed one more rebound, both teams made six threes, and both turned the ball over 12 times. SDSU won the assist battle, 14-5.
But a storyline of the game was free throw shooting. In the first half, the Aztecs were 14% from the line, shooting 1-for-7. They finished the game 11-for-21. The Lobos went 16-for-22. Coming into the night, Trammell shot 81% from the charity stripe, tonight, he went 2-for-6. Late in the game, with the score at 64-60, Bradley missed the front end of a one-and-one.
The key moment in the game was at the 8:20 mark. After the Aztecs took their first lead since the 19:18 mark in the first half, the Lobos took back the lead after two House free throws. They were given from a reach-in foul by Nathan Mensah, a call that he did not agree with, which led to a technical foul. The foul gave him his fourth, the technical gave him his fifth. With plenty of game to play, Mensah was forced to watch the rest of the game from the sideline. With boo’s raining down from the arena, House then hit his first three of the game to push the Lobo lead to four, and the rest was history.
“The gym was loud, it was so competitive in that moment… tempers are high in those moments,” Bradley said. “After every foul call, somebody was either frustrated or saying something. For the game to be that competitive and to call a technical on the defensive player of the year, I thought, was bad for us.”
Dutcher was frustrated the most with Mensah over committing the reach in foul. He admitted that Mensah made a reaction to the call that could have been technical worthy.
Mensah fouling out was also significant because Aguek Arop was a late scratch to the game. He injured his groin in warm-ups. This led to a mismatch of lineups throughout the game and a missing fifth-year senior to sub in for Mensah.
“AG was set to play, and they came to me and said he tweaked his groin in warm-ups, they taped him up, and he couldn’t go,” Dutcher said. “I was planning on using AG, that’s the problem when Nate fouls out, AG can play multiple positions.”
Last game against Nevada, SDSU scored 44 first-half points in one of their best 20 minutes of the year. They attempted to duplicate their performance by running the same first offensive set, a pass from the three-point line to a backdoor cutting Keshad Johnson for an alley-oop slam. The play worked, but the rest of the half did not go the same.
SDSU struggled to score offensively, they found open looks but could not get the ball drop in. On the opposite side of the court, the Lobos were scoring at will, particularly in the paint. They won the battle 20-10 in the first half.
Through the opening 12 minutes, New Mexico dominated in all facets, leading the game 26-15. Then, Matt Bradley scored his first basket of the game and took the lid off the rim from beyond the arc for the team. On the following possession, Adam Seiko drained his own three. Immediately, life was inserted into the building and the team.
But UNM remained in control through their leader, Jaelen House. He forced his way into the SDSU defense, hit contested layups, and was constantly lurking for steals in the backcourt. When New Mexico struggled to score, Mashburn saved the day, he scored 15 first-half points. By half, the Lobos led 38-28.
“Our defense in the first half was probably the worst it’s been all year,” Seiko said.
Bradley was the lone spark of the first half for SDSU. Every time the Lobos looked to be in complete control, he hit a three to keep the Aztecs in reach.
In the second half, Dutcher gave the keys to the offense to Bradley. Within the first four minutes, Bradley dished out three assists, hit a step-back jumper, and earned a trip to the free throw line. The deficit was down to two possessions, and energy was brought back into Viejas Arena. But he was not able to carry them for the full 20 minutes. He finished the game with 14 points and five assists.
SDSU also turned the game into streetball. Players dove all over the court, went into scrums for rebounds and looked to steal the ball whenever possible. The game was one of the chippiest it’s been all year.
By the 13:31 mark, Micah Parrish secured an offensive rebound to tie the game up, the first time the Aztecs were not trailing since the opening minute of the game.
At the 9:23 mark, SDSU finally reclaimed the lead off two Parrish free throws, and the fans rose to their feet.
But it did not last long. After the technical, Mashburn hit a bucket, and House continued his hot shooting. Just like that, the deficit was at 11 after a 12-0 UNM run.
“We didn’t take advantage of the opportunities we have, and you have to do that if you want to win,” Dutcher said.
With five minutes to play, House hit a corner three to push the New Mexico lead to 13. He showboated down the court and picked up a technical foul. In his mind, he thought he hit the dagger three.
But this started the spark for the last SDSU push toward victory. Adam Seiko checked into the game and hit a three to give life to the team. Then from the top of the arc, he hit another three after bouncing his shot way into the air off the back rim and somehow dropping in. The lead was down to four, but the Aztecs could not make the winning plays to shrink the deficit anymore.
SDSU will look to bounce back on Wednesday when they travel to Colorado State.