Following Tuesday’s loss to Nevada, the Mountain West standings tightened up. In a critical game against Boise State for sole possession of first place, the Aztecs flexed their muscles on both sides of the floor to capture a statement win.
Defense wins Championships
In one of the biggest games of the season, the Aztecs went back to their bread and butter, ferocious defense.
Lamont Butler set the tone for the game by stealing a pass from Jace Whiting and dunking in transition to open the SDSU scoring. Immediately, he turned around and began menacing the Bronco ball handlers. Without BSU’s starting point guard, Marcus Shaver Jr., the Aztecs made BSU’s offense impossible to execute effectively.
The press created turnovers, the Broncos had 12 in total, and the Aztecs scored 15 points off them. Whiting, the backup point guard, was thrown into the fire and accounted for four miscues. Without a guard able to quickly beat the press, the Bronco offense was delayed. It took six to ten seconds to get through halfcourt, which gave BSU less time to execute an offensive set.
The pressure stalled the Bronco offense and they failed to find their rhythm. They went through a first-half drought leading to a 20-2 SDSU run over a seven-minute stretch. This run essentially put the contest out of reach.
For the game, the Broncos shot 36.5% from the field and an abysmal 11.1% (2-18) from three-point range. The two-made threes were nearly six fewer than BSU’s average and the fewest since the opening game of the 2020-2021 season. It was on the only time this year the Broncos shot under 20% from deep. Unsurprisingly, just one player scored in double figures.
The defense for the Aztecs has taken a step back this season. They were second in the nation last year and now sit at 30th after the impressive effort against BSU. Putting together 40 minutes has been SDSU’s Achilles heel.
“We’ve obviously played 20 minutes of great basketball most games, usually in the first half,” Coach Brain Dutcher said. “But in the second half, I thought we came out and competed at a higher level than we had. With that being said, we got outscored by two points. But we didn’t see the drastic, give up 10 to 12 extra points that we’ve done in these other games.”
In the last four games, the Aztecs have allowed their opponents to explode in the second half. Nevada scored 47 second-half points, San Jose scored 37 (after 14 first-half points), Utah State scored 48, Air Force scored 36 points.
In this game, BSU scored 31 points, the least allowed by SDSU in the second-half points during conference play. The Aztecs never let up on their pressure on the Broncos. They will need to continue this to keep leads and win important battles.
Winning without the leaders scoring
Bronco fans will likely ignore the result of the game due to missing their best player, Shaver Jr. They have a point, as the game would have been completely different.
But the Aztecs were also missing their best players, sort of. Matt Bradley and Darrion Trammell combined for seven points on 3-for-13 shooting. Three points for Bradley and four for Trammell were each their lowest point totals of the season.
Last year, the Aztecs were 3-3 in games where Bradley scored in single digits. This year, they are 5-1 because they have the ability to win in multiple ways.
On Friday, the bench combined for 31 points, while Mensah and Keshad Johnson were perfect from the field. The guard play was also outstanding. Lamont Butler had five assists to only one turnover. Trammell may have struggled from the field, but he had seven assists and was in command of the offense.
“Then our point guards– I think Darrion still gets frustrated because he wants to see some of his jump shots go in, his threes, and he’s not shooting a great percentage,” Dutcher said. “But he has to be able to accept that and get over it because his value to the team is more than scoring. It’s setting up baskets for his teammates. We have to continue to encourage him and tell him, we know you want to make shots, and we want you to make shots, but your value to the team is not only about shot-making. It’s defending, pressuring the ball, and then getting your teammates involved.”
Last year with an offense centered around Bradley, if he had an off night, the game was likely going down to the wire and would need to be a gritty effort to capture the win. This year, in games where Trammell and Bradley struggle to score, the team still can win convincingly through the depth of the lineup.
SDSU played one of its most complete games of the season on Friday defeating Boise State 72-52 in a battle for first place.
— East Village Times (@EVT_News) February 4, 2023
Getting the Bronco off your back
The Aztecs finally got their revenge against Boise State and did so in a convincing fashion. The victory was critical for standings as it was a battle for first place and was a home game. But it was also important for the team’s morale after suffering three losses to BSU last season and one at the wire of the Mountain West championship.
“It feels great,” Mensah said. “I’ve been here for a long time. So last year’s loss was a hurtful one. Because it’s like Boise, anytime we go there, we kind of win, and it’s like a routine. So losing last year was like a step back, and losing again in the conference finals was a painful moment. That’s why I’m back here again, to redeem this team from where we are.”
The matchup is likely the first of three this season (if they meet in the Mountain West tournament). The next two will certainly be different, as Shaver Jr. will be back is expected to be back in the lineup. But this year’s Broncos team does not have the same advantages over the Aztecs.
Last season, the BSU lineup was tall and lengthy. They started four players over 6’7 and had defensive studs such as Emmanual Akot and Abu Kigab. These forwards are nearly irreplaceable with the impact they had on the floor. They added transfer Chibuzo Agbo, a similar build to the graduated forwards, and Naje Smith starts this season.
Even with the departing players, the BSU defense has improved, they are ninth in the nation, according to Kenpom. But this year, the SDSU offense has advantages over the Bronco defense inside. In the three games last season, no team scored over 60 points in a single contest, every meeting was a slugfest and was decided on the defensive end.
The Aztecs bucked that trend, scoring 72 points on Friday night. They found success in the paint, they scored 32 points. The SDSU big men, Keshad Johnson, Nathan Mensah, Aguek Arop, and Jaedon LeDee, combined for 43 points on 77.7% shooting.
BSU is also missing their paint protector from last season, Mladen Armus. The Serbian was a wall for the Broncos the last two years. With the lack of height on the defensive end, Mensah took advantage and was aggressive. He finished with 17 points on only four field goals. But he was a presence and drew extra defenders which resulted in drawing 10 fouls.
“He was everywhere,” Trammell said. “Just outworking their bigs, crashing the glass, going out there big offensively in the post. He was just everywhere tonight.”
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“He plays with that kind of energy and assertiveness, it’s not only when he catches the ball, but it’s when he pursues the ball,” Dutcher added. “He did a great job of that today. I thought he played as good a game as he’s played all year tonight.”
The Broncos this year are still elite and the class of the Mountain West. With Shaver Jr. back in the lineup, there will not be blowouts like this in future meetings. BSU has a tremendous defense, but their lack of size compared to last season is an advantage for SDSU, and if the Aztecs are to win the Mountain West, they will need to continue to dominate the paint.
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.