Last year, SDSU came into Laramie, Wyoming, needing a quadrant one win to solidify their resume. It took 30 points from Matt Bradley and some late-game heroics, including four free throws from Nathan Mensah in the final two minutes, to give the Cowboys their only home loss of the season.
This year’s matchup was a different story. After being picked to finish second in the conference, Wyoming came into the game with a 5-9 record and winless in Mountain West play. Its players have missed a combined 29 games this season due to injury, with its starting center, Graham Ike, sidelined for the entire year thus far. The Cowboys still have pieces from the team that went to the NCAA tournament last year, plus high-level transfers. They have kept numerous games close but have struggled to win. This means that a loss to Wyoming, even on the road, would have left a cow-pattie-sized stain on SDSU’s NCAA Tournament resume.
To the Cowboy’s credit, with multiple players sidelined and another injury during the game, they fought hard and almost knocked off the Aztecs. But San Diego State prevailed, winning 80-75 and moving to 12-3 overall.
“I thought our guys were a step slow tonight but to our guy’s credit, they were mentally tough,” Coach Brian Dutcher said. “They gutted it out, and they found a way to win.”
“Every time we go, we say, play your hardest, play your hardest, play as long as you can,” Lamont Butler said. “We got somebody coming in for you, they’re going to give it all their all, and today it worked.”
Mountain West basketball is never stress-free
The Cowboys have missed their big man, Ike, all season. They also came into the night missing his backup, Hunter Thompson. In addition to their absences, their leading scorer, Noah Reynolds, was sidelined. A struggling Cowboy team found themselves more depleted than usual. Yet, they were energized and had every opportunity to win the game.
In the first half, the Aztecs were scorching hot. If you gave Dutcher a crystal ball and told him that the Aztecs scored 43 first-half points, at one point shot 8-for-11 from three, and were playing an injured Cowboys team, Dutcher would probably guess that SDSU would be controlling the game. But they led by only one point.
In the second half, the Aztecs continued to score at will but had no defensive answer. Wyoming finished the game shooting 58% from the field and connected on multiple deep threes to answer Aztec baskets. They had four players score at least 14 points. It was only the sixth time since the 2016-2017 season that an SDSU opponent has shot 54.9% or better from the field. With Saturday’s win, the Aztecs are 2-4 in those contests.
Hunter Maldonado is a 6’7 guard who can score in the post, create for teammates, and score off the dribble. Night in and night out, he is a great test for defenses. SDSU failed at defending him. He was quick to blow by defenders and used his size to shoot over smaller Aztecs. When SDSU double-teamed, he was quick to find open teammates beyond the arc. He played every minute and finished with 20 points, four rebounds, and three assists.
A 6’7 ball-handler that does it all is stressful, but Wyoming also has their elite home-court advantage to make them a difficult test. Year after year, players understand that the elevation is no joke.
“The altitude hits you, it’s difficult to get into,” Butler said. “When you start walking, and then you be like, oh dang, I’m tired now. I go up a couple of stairs, and oh woah. But we were able to battle tonight.”
When a sea-level team travels to 7,165 feet, it poses challenges. Dutcher takes all precautions. The team flew in the night before as studies show that altitude fatigue does not accept real effect until after 24 hours in the location.
“When we used to have to come to play at Colorado State, stay a night or two, then bus up here to play, we were usually really tired,” Dutcher said.
Playing the percentages
Jeff Linder is a tremendous coach in the Mountain West. He took the Cowboys to the NCAA tournament last year and always has unique game plans. This season’s team has struggled defensively without their rim protector, Ike. With their other center also sidelined, Linder decided to pack the paint.
His strategy was to play the percentages. Butler came into the game shooting 32.4% beyond the arc, Keshad Johnson was at 17.6%. The Cowboys decided to live and die with their weak three-point shooting.
To begin the game, Butler and Johnson found themselves with more than enough cushion to shoot a jumper, and they drained it. Butler, with his space, decided to lace it up again, then did it again. He hit all three before the first media timeout.
Linder did not fold. He stuck to his game plan, and Butler ended up missing his next five wide-open threes. For a Cowboy team that lacked size inside, this strategy worked. With defenders backed off, Butler was unable to explode to the basket. This clogged the lane and forced the Aztecs to shoot from the outside. Thankfully for the Aztecs, they converted their threes as they made eight in the first half.
This strategy also kept the Cowboys in the paint to secure the rebounds. In the first half, they only gave up two offensive rebounds and barely lost the total battle on the glass.
Credit to Butler, after missing five in a row, he trusted himself and converted back-to-back second-half threes in pivotal moments in the game. He also sought his trusty mid-range jumper, which he has found success with this season. He finished the game with a career-high 23 points and was essential to the team’s victory.
“My team was able to find me on some open threes, and I was able to knock em down tonight,” Butler said. “I think it’s the most threes I’ve ever hit in a game in my life. I’ve been putting in work, and it showed tonight.”
“Just because they choose not to guard a guy doesn’t mean he can’t play, and they decided they weren’t going to press Lamont out on the three-point arc, and they paid for it,” Dutcher said. “He made them pay for not guarding him, and he did a fantastic job.”
“Jordan” LeDee and his domination on the glass
With all due respect to CBS and the tremendous commentating of Rich Waltz, he called Jaedon LeDee, Jordan, throughout the game. After his outstanding performance against the Cowboys, he needs his respect.
This matchup set up well for LeDee. With the Cowboys missing both of their big men, they had no answer for LeDee’s grown man strength on the glass. With Mensah rolling an ankle in the first half, LeDee assumed a bigger role.
He immediately opened the game with a hook shot from a designed play to get him deep into the paint. But with the Cowboys clogging the paint in the first half, he struggled to find space.
In the second half, he created his own space. The Cowboys could not stay in front of the brute. It seemed every Aztec miss off the rim had LeDee in front anticipating and snatching the ball. The Cowboys had no choice but to foul him, which in one instance, led to more physical damage to a Cowboy than LeDee.
“He was big for us down low, every time we gave him something in the paint, it was either a foul or a bucket, so it was big time for us to have that force inside,” Butler said.
After barely winning the rebound battle in the first half, the Aztecs finished with a +5 advantage, including winning 11-4 on the offensive glass. LeDee grabbed four of them. He finished the game with eight points, nine rebounds and played the majority of crunch time.
“He made some critical plays for us, some big rebounds, some free throws, he did a good job,” Dutcher said.
– Bradley was again sensational, finishing with 18 points on 7-for-13 shooting. His offensive game is efficient, and he is finding his groove. He hit timely baskets and clutch free throws to propel the Aztecs to victory.
– Trammell struggled, scoring only four points on 1-for-5 shooting. But he hit a pivotal free throw late in the game and sealed the game with a steal on the Cowboy’s final offensive possession.
– Dutcher said that Aguek Arop was battling an illness. He was not a big factor in the game, as he only played nine minutes. If healthy, he most likely would have defended Maldonado. Micah Parrish assumed responsibility for the majority of the game when he was on the floor.
– The 43 first-half points for the Aztecs and 42 for Wyoming was the most allowed by either team all season
– Saturday was the 90th all-time meeting between the schools. SDSU’s current nine-game win streak is the longest streak in the series that began on January 12, 1979. SDSU also improved their all-time record to 14-28 all-time when playing in Laramie but are 11-10 in their last 21 contests there.
– Mensah rolled his ankle in the first half after stepping on a Cowboy foot and subbed himself out. Dutcher said it bothered him, but he did not seem too worried about the extent of the injury.
– The Aztecs host Nevada on Tuesday night. The winner of the game will be in sole possession of first place in the Mountain West. “Let’s fill the building, two undefeated teams in the Mountain West, meeting at Viejas,” Dutcher said. “So Aztec fans, let’s fill it up, let’s make it a hard place for Nevada to come in and play.”