December has arrived. Christmas is fast approaching. For college students, final exams are upcoming, followed by an extended break from school. For student-athletes, it means the non-conference schedule is in its last month, with teams needing to gel quickly for conference play.
Aside from three neutral site games in Maui, the Aztecs never left their home state for a non-conference road opponent. But it has been a gauntlet of a schedule, and through close games, battling illness and injury, the team is worn down.
“It’s a tough time of the year,” Coach Brian Dutcher said after the game. “It’s not just basketball, they got final exams, they got papers due just like everybody else… Their thoughts are on basketball when they’re with us, but when they’re not with us, they got homework to do.”
Troy is located in Alabama playing its third consecutive out-of-state road contest. The Trojans were in Illinois two days before tipping off in San Diego and in Arkansas five days before that. The last time they were in Viejas Arena was in 2003. they set the record for most three-pointers made at 19. Coincidentally, the Aztecs tied the mark in their last game against Occidental.
Troy has played most of their opponents close. They defeated Florida State and gave Arkansas a second-half scare. Against SDSU on Monday, they put up a fight and made the Aztecs work for everything, but SDSU prevailed, making the right plays late and winning 60-55.
The SDSU Mobile
If Matt Bradley is the engine of the Aztecs, Darrion Trammell is the fuel.
Trammell returned to the starting lineup following an absence against Occidental due to a hamstring issue suffered in the UC Irvine game. His leg was wrapped last night, but he appeared unbothered by the injury.
The senior guard led the team with almost 36 minutes of playing time. He did it all. Trammell was a playmaker and made timely shots. He finished with 14 points and four assists.
With less than a minute left in a close game, he also made a game-sealing steal. Postgame, he credited the play to his instincts.
Matt Bradley took over.
When the season started, the spotlight was all over Bradley in a negative way. The team started 3-0, but its leading scorer last season did not reach double figures in any of those contests. The preseason questions about maintaining his scoring level on this year’s team with the new contributors were unanswered.
After scoring 18 points against Ohio State and 23 against Arkansas, he silenced the critics.
Against Occidental, he reminded fans about his passing ability as he dished out eight assists. On Monday night, he was sensational. He hit countless clutch baskets as Troy defenders could not stay in front of him on the drive. He finished with 19 points.
“It was good to see Matt take over a game,” Dutcher said. “I mean, everyone is wild, what’s wrong with Matt? What’s wrong with Matt? He didn’t need to take over, he’s making plays, and today he needed to score.”
He also had his first opportunity to make clutch free throws since he missed the go-ahead attempt against Creighton in the NCAA tournament. Against Troy, he was true from the charity stripe.
“Definitely was big free throws; I just kind of told myself that I’m gonna make them,” Bradley said. “I’m glad I made them, and I’m excited for the next opportunity to do that.”
While there is still work to be done, there are signs Bradley and Trammell are finding their way to compete together.
With 1:30 to play, the Aztecs had the ball, only leading by a possession. They played a two-man game to extend the lead. Out of a timeout, Dutcher designed a play for Bradley, but he was crowded in the paint. He kicked it out to Trammell, who drove past his defender in isolation and hit a contested layup. It was the final field goal for SDSU and extended the lead to two possession.
The play was set up at halftime. The Aztecs realized how much the Trojans were pressing and discussed what they needed to do to get by defenders in that situation. Kicking the ball out after the initial penetration would open up holes in the defense. When it mattered most, the tactic worked.
Through the first nine games, SDSU has the 16th toughest schedule in the nation. They played multiple NCAA tournament-caliber teams and unique matchups. Opponents that looked easier in the preseason have proved tougher than some expected. Seven of the nine contests have gone down to the wire. The grueling non-conference slate has taken a toll on the team.
“I told the guys, I feel bad for the schedule that I put together, but it’s going to toughen us; there’s no question about that,” Dutcher said.
Against UC Irvine, they were favored by double digits but needed a last-second shot to win. On Monday, as 15-point favorites, the Aztecs only won by two possessions. Even Occidental, who lost to UC Riverside by 76 points, played competent basketball against SDSU.
Both Bradley and Trammell admitted the schedule thus far has fatigued them. “Even though we’re tired, these teams are giving us all we can right now,” Bradley said. “It’s been tough, but I’m happy with our record and where we sit right now.”
Monday, SDSU not only battled the mental exhaustion of playing close contests, but they also had to contend with illness. Lamont Butler nearly missed Friday’s game due to his symptoms. Bradley said players have been in and out of practice all week, including himself.
Most games, Keshad Johnson, concludes warm-ups with a thunderous dunk. Demarshay Johnson Jr. had the honor last night for the second time this season. The first occasion was the game following Keshad Johnson’s shoulder injury against Cal State Fullerton. On Monday night, it was because K. Johnson is fighting a cold. He played only 14 minutes in the game, and Dutcher said he immediately needed to put on a jacket after the game.
Elijah Saunders came into warm-ups wearing a protective mask. He still played, but it was a telling of what is happening inside the locker room.
The schedule does not get easier as SDSU faces Saint Mary’s next on Saturday. It is the teams’ last chance to add a quadrant one non-conference win to their resume. The Gaels currently have a NET ranking of 16 and nearly knocked off #1 Houston on Saturday.
Feast or famine
After converting 19 threes just three days ago against Occidental, the hot shooting did not carry over to Monday’s game. SDSU reverted back to its prior, ice-cold form. Against Troy, they shot 4-for-22 from beyond the arc. Shooting an equal 2-11 in each half.
“It’s basketball, I know struggles happen,” Trammell said after. “All I can do is continue to work. Trust my work. Just continue to continue to shoot the ball with confidence like all of my teammates have.”
The lack of three-point shooting made it difficult to go on momentum runs. For parts of the second half, SDSU had made more shots in the game but trailed due to the Trojans converting from outside.
“They did a good job to close it out, we had some looks but they tried to run us off,” Dutcher said.
When SDSU did hit a long ball, it propelled them.
In the second half, the Aztecs trailed 47-39. Lamont Butler hit the team’s third three-pointer of the game, a timely bucket to keep the Trojans within striking distance and fuel an 11-0 run. At 47-47, Adam Seiko splashed a three; Troy never saw the lead again.
The team now ranks 305th in the nation, shooting 29% from beyond the arc. With the lack of three-point shooting, SDSU will need to grind out victories, making defense more crucial.
“We knew we were in store for a really tough game,” Dutcher said. “And it was, but to our credit, we fought through. We were mentally tough, and that’s what I put on the board… the toughest team always wins, and that’s gotta be mental toughness.”
Quick Takes SDSU vs Troy
– The Aztecs struggled to handle the ball. They committed 17 turnovers, and it was mainly due to Troy’s ball pressure. Dutcher said after the game that the Trojans denied the ball like no other opponent that they have played all season. They forced the Aztecs to make shots after driving by their defenders or kick to players away from the point of attack.
– A staple of this year’s SDSU team has been bench scoring, but they were defeated 34-15 off the bench. Aguek Arop led the way with eight points. D-II transfer Aamer Muhammad scored 21 points in a reserve role for the Trojans.
– The defense last night was superb, particularly in the second half. In the final 20 minutes, the Trojans only made six baskets and shot 21% from the field. The Aztecs also forced 17 turnovers for the game.
– To begin the season, Dutcher sent in waves of player,s at times off the bench. Three or four guys coming in gives defenses new looks but makes it difficult for players to find their rhythm. Against the Trojans, Dutcher felt out lineups and brought players in one or two at a time.
“The key is to see who’s closing the game, and that depends on who’s playing well,” Dutcher said. “I felt we had the guys who were playing the best in this game on the floor at the end, and they found a way to get us a win.”
– At the 15:00 mark in the second half, Aguek Arop found a wide-open Nathan Mensah for a thunderous slam to ignite Viejas Arena and regain the SDSU lead. But the crowd grew restless over the ensuing minutes over questionable calls by the referees. Eventually, the energy boiled over onto the court where normally quiet Micah Parrish vented Aztec Nation’s frustration. He yelled at Verne Harris, a veteran official and staple at SDSU games over the years, and received a technical foul.
– ‘The Show’ and Viejas Arena have been excellent in affecting games. They are vehemently vocal about questionable officiating and have fueled momentum runs. With 41 seconds left in the game in a five-point game, Trojan forwar Christian Turner stepped to the line after being fouled on a three-point attempt. Turner, 62% from the line in his career, did not stand a chance. He went 1-for-3 from the free throw line because of all of the antics and noise from the student section.