Winning in March is never easy.
Despite the challenges, the Aztecs won their 16th straight quarterfinal game in the Mountain West Tournament and advanced to the semifinals against San Jose State.
One play makes all the difference. CSU guard Isaiah Stevens had a drive to the rim in the final moments but missed. If the shot dropped, a different team would be playing today.
Basketball is a make-or-miss game.
Crunch Time Free Throws
In the NCAA Tournament last year, Creighton and San Diego State were all tied up with seven seconds left in the game. Matt Bradley was standing at the foul line for a one-and-one to take the lead and to send the Aztecs to the next round. The 80% career free-throw shooter missed the front end. Creighton went on to win, and Bradley had to think about the miss all off-season.
Tonight, he had his opportunity for redemption. With a 60-59 Aztec lead and 16 seconds left, Bradley again stared at the backboard awaiting his fortunes on a one-and-one. He converted the first and swished the second. It was obvious to see how much the shots meant to him.
“I came back, I was able to make it up today,” Bradley said postgame. “Just to be able to make that going into March Madness, this tournament is big for our team and for myself… Can’t live in the past, I knew I had to step up in that moment.”
In this time of year, most games go down to the wire. Teams are playing for their seasons and are going to use every second of the 40-minute game time. Unless the game is out of reach, coaches will instruct their players to foul more often at the end of postseason games. The importance of every free throw is magnified. Even one miss can make the difference in whether a team goes home or continues dancing.
Bradley converting his free throws late is monumental for the Aztecs’ future success, as he can be relied upon late in the game.
The ball should be in his hands late. Last season, after the Creighton game, he said he needed to do some “soul searching.” These two free throws reassured him of his confidence.
As a team, the Aztecs shot 17-24 from the line. This area still needs improvement. Jaedon LeDee and Nathan Mensah both missed important shots from the charity stripe late in Thursday’s contest.
Mensah also deserves credit for making the front end of a one-and-one with the Aztec lead at one with 10 seconds remaining. It was just enough for SDSU to walk away with a victory.
March is for players
Coach Brian Dutcher and Niko Medved met after halftime and were smiling in their conversation.
“I just said to Dutch, listen, both of us can just walk out of here right now, and it won’t change what’s about to happen here,” Medved said about the conversation.
“It’s not to dismiss coaching, but March is for players,” Dutcher said, sharing his perspective on the chat. “We’ve done enough coaching during the year; we know who we are, we know what we should be doing. Then a player or two will make a play in March that either advances you or sends you home.”
In the conference tournament, teams face each other for a third time. Saying the teams have familiarity with one another would be an understatement. Both teams know each other’s plays, tendencies, and preferred spots on the court. The games turn into physical battles with defensive intensity.
Whoever has the best player at the end of the game usually ends up winning the contest.
Late in the second half, it was clear the Rams had the best player, Isaiah Stevens. Through the first 25 minutes, he was scoreless.
With seven minutes remaining, he awoke. He made a contested layup around Mensah, went to the free-throw line on back-to-back possessions, and then hit a three-pointer—nine points in less than two minutes, and the Rams led by three.
With 1:42 remaining in the game, Stevens hit a three-pointer to take the lead. The shot hit the back of the rim and bounced to the height of the backboard, and dropped in. The shot gave flashbacks to 2020 when Sam Merrill, from the same spot at the top of the arc, hit a three to put a dagger into SDSU’s heart.
But collectively, the Aztecs overcame Stevens’ heroics.
“Efficiently or not, we made plays when the game was on the line,” Dutcher said.
An example of this is after Stevens’ shot, Ledee forced himself inside and drew a foul. He converted both free throws and regained the Aztec lead. SDSU made important free throws and crucial defensive stops at the most important moments of the game.
With 16 seconds remaining, the Aztecs held a three-point lead and motioned for a timeout. Assistant coach Dave Velasquez walked over to the refs and said, “we’re gonna play it out.” Meaning they were not going to foul Colorado State with a three-point lead.
A popular basketball analytic strategy is to foul the opposing team when leading by three points. It dwindles time off the clock and prevents opposing teams from tying the game.
Most coaches have a philosophy and stick to it in these situations.
“No, I didn’t think we could foul with 16 seconds,” Coach Brian Dutcher said. “I just know how fast he was getting down the floor… it was going to happen so fast that it wasn’t like he was going to come down, take a lot of time, and (the clock) gets under ten, and then we could foul.”
Stevens ended up blowing by SDSU’s defense and getting an easy layup with ten seconds left. Dutcher said the Aztecs had a defensive lapse, and the plan was to defend without fouling. After the layup. In a panicked press break, Mensah had to receive the inbounds and take the next critical free throws.
If Dutcher decided to foul, the game would have drawn out, which may be a better strategy according to the computers but may not work well for the Aztecs. SDSU has struggled to beat the press and convert free throws at the end of games this season. Letting the game play out also plays into SDSU’s strength: defense. One defensive stop, and the game is most likely over.
Another basketball analytical situation occurred at the end of the game. With .07 seconds remaining on the clock, Mensah was at the foul line for two free throws with a two-point lead. If he made both, the game would be over with a two-possession lead. After he missed the first, one school of thought suggests the best strategy is to intentionally miss the second. Some argue that the time it takes to collect the rebound will drain the clock.
Since Mensah made the second attempt, the Rams had a chance to inbound and give Stevens a running start on his full-court heave. The shot was prayer that was almost answered. His attempt to tie the game ended by hitting off the front of the rim.
Quick Takes SDSU vs CSU:
Getting the nerves out. There was energy in the Thomas & Mack Center before the game on and off the court. The Aztecs looked prepared for the moment in warmups but were not ready out of the gate. The noon start was the earliest all season.
Meanwhile, the Rams had already done this drill, playing at 11 am the day before against Fresno State. CSU jumped out to an 8-0 lead, and it took the Aztecs a few minutes to get settled.
Dominating the glass. The Aztecs won the battle on the boards, 42-32. They created 14 offensive rebounds, LeDee contributed five of them. They also won the second chance points, 17-10. Securing extra possession was vital in a game where the teams shot a combined 38.3%
Cleaning up the turnovers. Through the first 16 minutes, SDSU had eight turnovers to zero for the Rams. The Aztecs were committing sloppy turnovers, which stopped their ability to create a scoring surge and gain any margin. They had two three-minute scoring droughts. The Aztecs finished the game with 13 and forced 10 from the Rams.
Viejas East. The Aztecs had a clear crowd advantage. Aztec Nation filled up nearly half of the arena. They fueled a momentum run in the second half and led their normal chants. With 16 seconds left in the game and an SDSU three-point lead, the fans rained down the chant; We will be victorious! The stadium should continue to fill up with Aztec fans as the tournament continues.
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.