On Sunday, April 14, the San Diego Symphony will perform composer Igor Stravinsky, The Firebird. Originally created in 1910 for the Paris Opera Ballet, it is an adaptation from Russian folklore with the moral that greed corrupts in its pursuit.
Tuesday night, the San Diego State men’s basketball welcomed the University of Saint Katherine to Viejas Arena. Stravinsky’s work is the namesake for the mascot of the small San Marcos school. With just one player on its roster reaching 6-foot-9, the Aztecs’ offense resembled a well-choreographed ballet most of the night.
“It was great to be back on the floor after finals,” head coach Brian Dutcher said postgame. “We got some practices in, but obviously, haven’t had a game in a while. It felt good to get back out there in front of a Viejas crowd and start playing games again. It was a good game for us. It was a tune-up game, coming out of finals.”
After USK came out dancing, hitting four of its first five shots, including three from behind the arc to claim an 11-7 lead at the first media timeout, SDSU took the lead with a quick 10-0 run highlighted by a pair of steals in the backcourt that led to break away buckets for Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell.
Halfway through the first half, the Aztecs’ size advantage started to take over. Forward Jay Pal, standing behind USK’s 6-foot-7 forward Logan Phillips, simply elevated and, without much interference, snatched the ball over Phillips for an easy offensive rebound that he converted into points. Miles Heide pulled down three rebounds off the offensive glass, and Elijah Saunders added another.
These added to Jaedon LeDee’s inside dominance set the tone for the night. Eleven of SDSU’s first 28 points came off offensive rebounds. LeDee had 12 points to lead all scorers twelve minutes into the contest. USK only had 16 points total.
The local NAIA program joined everyone else on the Aztecs’ schedule as being unable to handle LeDee. It is doubtful much could have been done to slow SDSU’s star even if Saint Katherine’s entire 267 student enrollment had been allowed to play at once.
The lead ballooned to 20 (36-16) when USK head coach Kevin Williamson called his first timeout. The tactic stopped the game from turning into an up-and-down affair that would have favored SDSU even more. At the under-four-minute break, the Aztecs only added to their lead by four at 42-18.
The offensive symphony continued. On one possession, BJ Davis brought the ball up the left side. As Davis crossed half court, he passed it to LeDee, who quickly lobbed it from near the spear at the Aztecs’ logo at center court to a streaking Miles Byrd under the basket. Byrd, like a volleyball set, touch passed it to Pal, who was hammered as he went up.
The scoring in the first half was punctuated by another breakout by Butler. Reese Waters collected a steal and lobbed it to Butler, who flushed a windmill dunk reminiscent of former Atlanta Hawks legend Dominque Wilkins.
SDSU led 52-22 at intermission. LeDee continued to pace the team. He had 14 points. Waters (12) and Trammell (10) were also in double figures. Heide had an impressive eight rebounds. The Aztecs led 15-0 in second-chance points. They collected 21 points off turnover. SDSU shot 51.2% (21-41) from the field. USK’s Xavier Cooper had eight for the visitors, who hit 4 of 20 shots after starting 4 of 5.
As the lead grew, some fans began to chant, “We want 100,” without remembering the moral of The Firebird is greed corrupts.
“Just, we have a standard we play up to,” Dutcher said postgame when asked what his message was to the team at intermission. “I told them after the game that Darrion, Lamont and, Micah, and Jaedon are held to a higher standard than anybody else. They can’t make any mistakes at the defensive end. I’m tired of watching them make mistakes. … The new guys like Heide, Elijah Saunders in his second year, Byrd, playing his first real minutes, I said they’re working hard to catch up. They’ll make mistakes, but you’ve got to play mistake-free if we are going to be the team we want to be. So, I’m trying to put more pressure on my four returning seniors to be more productive on both ends of the floor, and hopefully, they’ll answer that challenge.”
The protagonist of The Firebird is Prince Ivan, who investigates the loss of his family’s golden apples from his family’s orchard. He discovers that a firebird is the thief eating the precious produce. Ivan tries to capture the animal, but it flies away, leaving only a handful of feathers in his grasp.
Like the mythology, the second half of the contest was a futile grasp at competitive basketball. SDSU and USK traded baskets early on. Over the first five minutes, the Firebirds matched the Aztecs ten points.
The game grew sloppy. The ballet devolved into pickup basketball. Butler left the game momentarily with a bloody nose that he injured on a charge. Trammell hobbled off after a collision. Later in the half, Pal left with an apparent eye injury that SDSU coaches were suggesting to the refs was caused by a stray elbow.
Postgame, Dutcher said Trammell tweaked a previous injured ankle. Pal could have broken his nose and will likely require x-rays Dutcher guessed, though he cautioned he had yet to speak to the trainers. Their status for Thursday’s game in unknown.
Sensing the quality of the play slipping, Dutcher called for a full-court press. The urgency of the defense heightened the intensity. SDSU reclaimed its 30-point advantage at 70-40 with 11:48 left in the contest.
Micah Parrish’s fifth point, a converted free throw on a three-point play, triggered an 11-2 run. Parrish beat the buzzer for another basket. Byrd added an and-one layup. Davis hit a corner three. With each made basket, the defensive intensity increased. SDSU led 79-42 with 7:50 left in the game.
Cade Alger and Ryan Schwarz got into the action after the under-eight-minute timeout. Cam Lawin joined them 90 seconds of game time later. A minute later, Desai Lopez entered. The quartet competed with Demarshay Johnson. The understudies could not perform as harmoniously as the lead company.
Still, Lawin hit a three to push SDSU’s total to 84. They remained at that mark with four minutes left. Consecutive threes by USK gave them more second-half points with 2:27 remaining. The Firebirds scored 35 to the Aztecs 32. SDSU led 84-57.
Despite the score, The Show continued chanting, “Let’s go Aztecs.” Lawin responded to their energy with a long two. Lawin also aleterd the refs to a substitution error that saw six Firebirds on the court. Lawin converted one of two ensuing technical free throws to even the second half scoring.
“Cam’s a big hustle guy,” Heide explained after the game. “He works hard in practice, shoots the crap out of the ball. So, he got his chance to shoot and did a good job.”
After the foul shots, Lawin drove to the basket, but his layup rimmed out. Johnson, though, tipped in the errant attempt. Alger added two free throws to close the scoring on the night.
SDSU defeated St. Katherine 91-57.
After a curtain call walk around the court to shake hands with their fans, the Aztecs headed to the locker room. LeDee (17), Waters (15), Trammell (10), and Pal (10) scored in double figures. Heide grabbed one second-half rebound to finish with nine. Johnson had eight rebounds.
The Aztecs will be back at Viejas on Thursday for a game against Stanford at 6 pm.
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.