Eleven years ago, Viejas Arena held one of the biggest home games in school history. Kawhi Leonard vs. Jimmer Fredette, a matchup of two top-10 schools. The Cougars won the battle and left the conference the following year. For years, this was a yearly heated rivalry in the Mountain West conference. With only five matchups since that season, the rivalry has dimmed, but there is still bad blood and drama in every contest.
The Cougars own the Aztecs all-time winning 50 of 75 matchups, a winning record inside Viejas Arena, and the latest two face-offs.
Within the first four minutes, the Cougars showed they did not care about the Aztec’s national ranking, they were here to win again. They made seven of their first eight baskets and took a double-digit lead.
In the next four minutes, the defensive effort stepped up; BYU could not even get a shot off, attempting only two shots in four minutes. The Aztecs went on a quick 10-0 run to tie the game up.
But SDSU could not regain the lead.
The Cougars kept the Aztecs at arm’s length and mounted a double-digit lead by the first TV timeout in the second half.
But 12,414 fans can only be held in check for so long. After dealing with stoppages for fouls, injuries, and mopping the floor for a spilled beer, the crowd was finally ignited after an 8-0 SDSU run midway through the second half.
At the 8:23 mark, Darrion Trammell grabbed his own rebound on a missed free throw and put up a jumper to regain the Aztec lead, 61-60. Viejas erupted.
Then the crowd’s energy immediately fizzled after a Spencer Johnson three and a 7-0 Cougar run.
But SDSU continued to rally with a coalition of effort. Darrion Trammell hit a three with the shot clock winding down, Nathan Mensah made a putback layup, Lamont Butler flew in transition.
At the 3:45 mark, the entire arena was standing, chanting We will be Victorious, SDSU led 71-68.
With 56 seconds left, Jaedon LeDee hit a layup plus a foul to push the lead to 78-73.
With 36 seconds left, Viejas Arena was in mayhem after a Nathan Mensah swat on a layup attempt to seal the victory.
Aztecs taste sweet revenge and rally for the comeback, winning 82-75.
SDSU made the winning plays at the right moments.
“Growth pays dividends in these type of games,” Mensah said afterward.
“We played hard and made enough plays to get the win today,” Coach Brian Dutcher said afterward. “I don’t know if we would’ve won in Provo… the home crowd was instrumental to us getting this win.”
After 20 minutes, the Aztecs only trailed four, and considering the Cougars shot 50% from the field, the small deficit still felt frustrating. There were 23 combined fouls which slowed the game down and took the fans at Viejas Arena out of it.
The second-half rally was led by Trammell and the big men.
Trammell continued to make one impact play after another. His biggest highlights were three-pointers late in the shot clock with defenders in his face. He also hit clutch free throws to ice the game. He finished the game with 21 points and four assists.
Mensah found openings inside and on the glass. With the Aztec lead only at three, he made a LeBron James esque chase down block on a wide-open Cougar layup. He injured himself going all out for it. But he checked back in and remained a monster defensively.
“That was my guy, and I’ll be held accountable,” Mensah said, laughing afterward, recalling the play.
“I’m used to it, that’s the type of play he makes all the time; I’ve seen it in practice; it wasn’t a surprise to me,” LeDee said.
Mensah finished with a double-double, 14 points, ten rebounds, four steals, and three blocks.
Early in the game, Dutcher was fuming at Butler for three early turnovers, so he quickly subbed in LeDee.
LeDee stepping in the game early on was a huge factor for the Aztecs staying in the game. He scored 16 first-half points, drew six fouls, and was a huge part of the Aztec success tonight. BYU occasionally went to a 3-2 zone, which SDSU beat by feeding the big man in the paint. LeDee drew fouls and wreaked havoc inside. LeDee continued to dominate in the second half. He made a huge and-one layup late in the game to extend the Aztec lead. He finished as the leading scorer with 23 points off the bench, grabbing six rebounds and drawing eight fouls.
Last season, the Cougars defeated the Aztecs in hostile Provo, even though they made less field goals than SDSU. Tonight, the Aztecs returned the favor. They made two less field goals but 16 more free throws.
Fouls were a storyline in this game. BYU had their center, Fousseyni Traore and Rudi Williams, in foul trouble for the majority of the game. The Cougars committed 26 fouls, and SDSU shot 26-37 from the free-throw line.
BYU started no one over 6’7 but early on, felt like the bigger team. In the first half, they had 18 points in the paint, and they gave nothing easy to the larger SDSU team.
But in the second half, Dutcher adjusted to playing bigger. He had lineups featuring the combination of LeDee, Mensah, Aguek Arop, and Keshad on the court to impose their size. This combination was huge for imposing their will to mount the comeback. After being dominated in the paint early on, the Aztecs won the advantage 36-34.
“We knew the advantage we had with myself, Jaedon, AG, Keshad had,” Mensah said.
Mensah and LeDee both limped out of the press conference as the physical game took a toll on them.
“We’ll bounce back; it’s part of basketball, taking hit after hit,” Mensah said.
The Cougars had four players in double figures and shot 46% from the field. But it was keeping the ball that was their biggest issue. They committed 20 turnovers. Rudi Williams, transfer from Coastal Carolina who had interest from the Aztecs, committed eight.
“Our defensive pressure was good, and we continue to play hard even though we don’t play great (defensively) all the time,” Dutcher said.
Last season, Matt Bradley struggled to score against taller defenders. Against the taller Cougar forwards, he again suffered shooting struggles as he scored zero first-half points for his second straight game. But like the game against Cal State Fullerton, Dutcher went to Bradley on the opening possession of the second half to regain his rhythm. Bradley rallied for three quick layups, but he was ice cold, scoring only six points on 3-for-16 shooting.
He was visibly frustrated. Enough to get thirty minutes of shots up after the game while the entire arena cleared out.
“I’m not worried about Matt, Matt can score the ball,” Dutcher said afterward. “I see him practice every day. You have to realize that people are paying attention to Matt… they’re devoting a lot of their defense to him, and that’s why other players are open and able to create because they won’t leave Matt, they won’t help off him.”
The box score may not show it, but Micah Parrish was huge off the bench for the Aztecs, even though he did not make a field goal. He made big defensive plays and did the intangibles to keep the Aztecs in the game. He was fouled on two three-pointers and went 7-for-8 from the free-throw line.
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After taking a fall in the first minute of last game, Keshad Johnson wore a shoulder wrap for tonight’s game. The injury bothered him enough not to end warm-ups with a thunderous dunk which is part of the pre-game festivities (Demarshay Johnson did it instead).
The Aztecs went to him on the first possession of the game for the first points of the game. But with nine minutes left in the first half, he picked up his second foul and sat the remainder of the period. Dutcher said afterward that he did not practice all week and that he did not want to force him into the flow of the game.
SDSU is on to their next test, their first road game of the year against Pac-12 foe Stanford.
Class of 2022 at San Diego State University. Communication major and pursuing a sports journalism profession. Season ticket holder of the SDSU MBB team since 2011. Fondest memory of Viejas Arena is Aztec legend, Dwayne Polee sparking a 19-1 run over New Mexico to win the MW Conference in 2014.