College basketball is a 40-minute game. For 35 minutes on Tuesday, SDSU looked like one of the best teams in the nation. Then a desperate Nevada defense made fans, coaches, and Aztec players frustrated as suddenly the 21-point lead turned to single digits in four minutes.
“I thanked (the team) after the game; if they played 40 minutes like they did (the prior 35 minutes), then they wouldn’t have needed coaching,” Coach Brian Dutcher said. “We have to continue to work.”
The Aztecs built an insurmountable lead, and the Wolfpack did not have enough time to execute a comeback.
Aztecs win 74-65.
Viejas in a frenzy
In a game that featured the first and second-place team of the Mountain West, many expected this to be a close game—especially considering last season when the two matchups were decided by a combined three points.
On the opening possession, Keshad Johnson soared on an alley-oop dunk to set the tone early.
“Oh, come on, you open the game with a lob dunk; that’s always exciting,” Dutcher said.
The dunk initiated an opening 10-0 run highlighted by a Lamont Butler three that got Viejas rocking enough to force Nevada coach Steve Alford to burn a timeout.
The party was just getting started as the first half for the Aztecs was near perfection. It was a half reminiscent of the 2019 – 2020 SDSU team and one that lived up to the preseason expectations of this season’s squad.
They won the opening 20 minutes, 44-27, and essentially put the game away.
SDSU shot 50% from the field, 7-for-16 from beyond the arc, and were flowing on offense. They dished out 11 assists on their 15 made field goals and only turned the ball over twice. An assist-turnover ratio that will give Dutcher a good night’s rest.
“The first half is probably as good as a half as we’ve played all year,” Dutcher said.
Defensively they were stifling. Nevada shot only 33% from the field and went 3-for-15 from beyond the arc. The Wolfpack’s best players, Jarod Lucas and Kenan Blackshear were visibly frustrated. They went a combined 4-for-15 from the field with three turnovers.
The exclamation point to the half was a breakaway fastbreak where Johnson led the charge, and fans had to wait to see what dunk package he was bringing out. After a thunderous slam, Viejas erupted into a frenzy.
Ten minutes into the second half, the Aztec faithful matched the pandemonium of the first stanza. It started with a defensive clinic by the Aztecs that gave Nevada no breathing room over a thirty-second possession. Viejas roared after securing the defensive rebound, and then Jaedon LeDee blew the roof off with a dunk at the end of the SDSU shot clock. Alford had to burn his second timeout of the game due to high volume.
“They have great players, so if it wasn’t for our fans, you know, they might have gone on a roll, so definitely thanks to them,” Bradley said.
Scoring against length
Last season, teams in the top 35 of height in the NCAA went 5-4 against the Aztecs. SDSU struggled to score against taller teams with their one-dimensional offense centered around 6’4 Matt Bradley.
The Wolfpack last year were the 14th tallest team in the nation. The two matchups last year were decided by a combined three points and came down to the wire. This year they are the 19th tallest team and have improved their defense with their length.
Record-wise, the Aztecs have struggled again this year against taller teams. They are 2-3 against top-40 teams in height, with the losses coming to Saint Mary’s, Arkansas, and Arizona and their lone win coming against Stanford. (Wyoming is the 37th tallest team, but were missing both of their big men for the matchup.)
There’s been a common denominator in SDSU losses against taller teams. Lack of ball movement and spacing. In their three losses, they dished assist totals of 4, 8, and 11.
In their win against the Wolfpack, they negated the length through free-flowing offense. The ball was constantly moving. The team finished with 18 assists. They scored ten fast break points but looked to push the ball and move in transition.
“I just think they looked good playing together; they look so much more comfortable,” Dutcher said. “They’re moving the ball, drive and kick, drive and finish, post touch, you know everything. We functioned at a high level. That’s a change for Aztec basketball, we’re able to win with our offense occasionally, but that’s a good feeling.”
They finished the game shooting 50% from the field and 8-for-21 from three. Three players hit double figures, and everyone scored except for Aguek Arop.
“Everybody is dangerous, and you know, many people can get off… you can go down the list,” Bradley said. “We’ve grown as a team, as far as coaching, play calling, and just players.”
The final five minutes:
At the 5:09 mark, Bradley made an and-one finish to push the lead to 21. Some fans started to head to the exits, and reserves on both benches began to take off their warm-up gear in the hope to play garbage time minutes.
But Steve Alford pushed his team to give one more final push through a full-court press. The same strategy he implemented last season.
Last year, SDSU led by 17 at the 7:30 mark over Nevada. After a fierce Wolfpack press, they brought the deficit all the way down to one and had a chance to win the game on the final possession. The Aztecs prevailed.
This time around, the Wolfpack had the same success and went on a 12-0 run over four minutes. The run featured five SDSU turnovers and a frustrated arena that, with the late 8 pm tip-off, wanted to go home. If they had more time or attempted the press earlier, the game could have been different.
“Definitely, I know the coaches are going to drill us in practice, but you know, we’re better than that,” Bradley said.
“Unless you have that dynamic point guard that can dribble through it, you have to rely on spacing, passing, and just fundamentals, and that’s what we have to get better at,” Dutcher said.
Dutcher is not too worried, his age-old saying is it is better to practice flaws from a game that his Aztec team won. But this situation brought back memories of a similar press defense that brought Creighton back in the NCAA tournament last season. The same trap defense that lost the game against Arkansas in the Maui Invitational.
This flawed area is clear for SDSU, and they will have to clean it up as games get more important, but the players and coaches are confident in their abilities.
“I don’t know if we’re thinking back on those times where we had issues with that, but we’ve grown a lot as a team offensively, just with the guys that we have to take care of the ball,” Bradley said. “I think we just have to be confident, trust our game and not let those situations get the best of us.”
An ode to scouting: On an out-of-bounds pass, Alford yelled out a code word to his players for a defensive scheme, Darrion Trammell immediately yelled out to his team, “1-3-1!” He ran into the corner, in front of the Nevada bench, in the hole of the defense, and splashed a three off a designed setup. The Wolfpack did not use the 1-3-1 again.
Technical foul: Trammell was given a technical after talking too much to Lucas. It was not egregious. There was clear tension on the floor between the two of them during the first half; it bubbled over to the point where the referees had to intervene. But during the second half, Trammell landed on top of him after fouling and immediately helped Lucas up.
Physical first half: One reason that SDSU had such a successful first half was the referees let the teams play. The Aztecs were only called for five fouls. They were physical and made nothing easy on the Wolfpack. This is a particular advantage against UNR, as they came into the night as the eighth-best team at getting to the free-throw line. They also convert at the eighth highest percentage in the nation.
Dutcher is not satisfied: After climbing back into the national rankings and claiming sole possession of the Mountain West, it can be easy to be content with performance. “I told the guys at halftime, as good as we played, if you believe that we don’t have a higher level to climb to, we’re never going to be a good team. If you don’t believe that, we’re not going to have the year we want to have.”