The burial of Saint Mary’s at the hands of SDSU

Credit: SDSU Men's Basketball

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4,500 Covid tests were taken this season by San Diego State’s football team with only two positive results. Players and coaches alike pointed to senior leadership as the reason for such a remarkable feat. Every coach points to leadership from the older players as a key ingredient for success, but if cultivating young men to lead their peers was easy, there would not be millions of “how-to” books and best sellers on the topic.

Tuesday’s victory over Saint Mary’s was the Aztecs’ most complete game of the year. It also provided one of the biggest examples of senior leadership from its smallest player. Terrell Gomez noticed a deficiency at halftime of the BYU game and led his team to make a change. “I told them half time of last game,” Gomez explained Tuesday. “I said, ‘We’re getting all these stops, and we’re working so hard to score in the half-court. … why are we not getting points in transition? Points in transition is the easiest offense.”

Increasing the tempo of play for an entire squad is easy to say but difficult to do. Against Arizona State, the Sun Devils pushed tempo believing an up and down game would benefit their team, but it was the Aztecs’ offense that was ignited. Following that game, Coach Dutcher said, “We want to play fast, we want to run and prevent them (our opponents) from running, so every chance we get to run, I want to run. We did a good job (of that tonight). That’s how we spurted ahead. That second unit came in and got a fast-break layup, fast-break layup, fast-break three, and that broke the game open. So, I’m not trying to play slow; I’m trying to play as fast as we can offensively.”

Despite their coach’s encouragement, the offense ground to a halt against BYU, prompting Gomez’ half time speech. During the short turnaround between games, Gomez displayed the unteachable qualities coaches around the country wished all their upperclassman possessed. “I had a talk with the coaches,” Gomez added. “I’m used to playing really, really fast. I don’t know if people noticed, but today, we pushed the ball a lot better. I’m used to getting up the court fast, and if you don’t have anything, then you get into the offense, instead of just initially getting into the offense when a team makes a basket.” An underclassman might be intimidated suggesting a different course to their coaches, senior leaders are not afraid to “lead up” when it is appropriate.

As the quote from Dutcher above suggests, it was not a hard sell to the coaching staff, but convincing teammates to change their habits in the middle of a season with the team playing well is another matter. Coming from a player who has been part of the program for less than a year could prove a challenge for some, but Gomez has experience on his side.

As a junior in high school, Gomez was the returning player with talented transfers joining his team. “We had a lot of transfers,” Gomez told the Los Angeles Sentinel in 2016. “We had to gel really quickly.” This year, Gomez was on the other side of this equation, using that experience to lead players who have been Aztecs for years. “I pulled them all to the side – even without the coaches. I said, ‘We got to get out and run. We are getting all these stops. We’ve got to reward ourselves,” Gomez said.

Ultimately, of course, leaders lead by example. “(Terrell) proved to be valuable at the point guard position today.” Coach Dutcher said following the game. “He pushed the ball at the break…(he made a) lob pass to Keshad (Johnson), lob pass to Nate, and he proved to be dangerous not only scoring the ball but as a playmaker.”

Gomez checked into the game, and the pace of the game was changed in a flash. Before he entered, no baskets were made within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock; only one was attempted. On Gomez’s first trip down the court, Schakel, assisted by Gomez, hit a three with 21 seconds left on the shot clock. A few possessions later, Gomez found Schakel again for another three, this time with 26 seconds left. When Gomez brought the ball up the court, the tempo was noticeably quicker.

Gomez also excelled at finding his own shot early. Having extended the lead to 11, 21 – 10, Gomez knocked in a 30 footer only seven seconds into the possession. On Saint Mary’s next possession, Gomez stole the ball at the free-throw line then went the length of the court for a layup in four seconds. “It definitely gave the team a bit of a spark,” Gomez said about hitting a 30-foot jumper. “A lot of the guys, especially the guys who know me, that’s kind of normal. I just got to get into that groove.” He certainly was in a groove Tuesday. He finished 5 – 6 from the field, including 3-4 from three.

With the way SDSU plays defense, the importance of every easy basket is magnified. Terrell Gomez had his best night as an Aztec. 13 points and 4 assists. Most importantly, he has found a blueprint for success for his new team. “I’m definitely used to (playing fast). It’s what I do. Obviously, at my last school, we averaged 80 points. We just got to push with opportunity. Be smart about it, though. When we are having off-shooting games, we can play well in transition and continue to get our stops, and we’re going to be fine against good teams.”

Another sign of Gomez’s stellar leadership: he was not completely satisfied with his team’s performance. “Today we did a great job playing faster, but we still had lapses because I feel, guys still have to get used to it. Guys were getting a little winded.”

Senior leadership is hard to come by, and the Aztecs are fortunate to have a leader like Terrell Gomez.

In the preview for the game against St. Mary’s, we gave three keys to the game. We revisit them below.

1. Free Throws

In a game with such a lopsided margin, free throws did not have the importance that they would have in a closer contest.  Nonetheless, free throws were a significant advantage for SDSU. The Aztecs made more free throws, 19, than the Gaels attempted, 15. SDSU made 11 more shots from the line than Saint Mary’s. This accounted for a significant portion of the 25 point margin of victory.

Only once did foul shooting noticeably impact the outcome of the game. Leading by twenty at the half, Saint Mary’s opened the half on an eight to two-run to cut the lead to 14 on a Logan Johnson emphatic dunk. Johnson was called for a technical foul for taunting Mensah, and Schakel hit two free throws to put the lead back to 16. Any momentum from the dunk was instantly stopped, and Saint Mary’s only got within 14 one other time.

Matt Mitchell leads the team in attempts and is 23rd in the nation, shooting 7.29 foul shots per game. At the beginning of the season, Mitchell was getting an inordinate amount of offensive fouls called against him, which greatly reduced his opportunities at the line. He shot only five total in the season’s first two games.  Once refs began calling the game more equitably, Mitchell saw his foul attempts sore. He has averaged 9.2 attempts since the opening week of the season. By comparison, Temple’s Damian Dunn leads the nation in this category, averaging 10.5 attempts a game.  On Tuesday, Mitchell once again led the team in free-throw attempts and makes. He was seven of ten for the game.

The only other player on the Aztecs to shoot more than a pair was Jordan Schakel. As important as it is for Mitchell to get to the free-throw line, it is equally as important for Schakel. Twice this year, against UCI and BYU, Schakel was held without a free throw attempt. He scored three points in each of those games. In games where he gets to the foul line, he is averaging 17 points.

The attacking play was an encouraging sign for the team, particularly from its star players.  They learned a key lesson against BYU. No matter the size of the opponent, the Aztecs have the athletes to force the action. Shots may not always fall, but drawing fouls can be just as important.

2. Containing Matthias Tass

At the 14:16 mark of the first half, Tass was subbed out of the game. The Aztecs were leading 13-6. Five minutes and 12 seconds of game time later, he subbed back in, and the score was 28-10. The game was out of hand for the Gaels. Tass would not have kept the game close, but it was clear Saint Mary’s was at its best when they could play inside out.

Throughout the game, Tass was controlled by SDSU’s post players leading the Gaels less coordinated on offense. “When you have a post that can defend one on one, then you don’t draw a second defender where they can kick out and shoot threes,” Dutcher explained. “So both Nathan and Josh (Tomaic) did a good job playing one on one in the post where we didn’t have to send a second defender – (except) if they got careless with the ball, where they put their head down. We could try to go down and strip it from them. If you can play one on one that goes a long way to taking away the opposition’s three-point shot when they kick it out. ”

Perhaps lost in Mensah’s block party Tuesday was his impressive on-ball defending on Tass. “I think it boils down to who’s stronger.” Mensah described his matchup with Tass following the game. “I think, me enforcing my strength on him really paid off. It got to the point where I felt like I had him under control. Anything necessary to be done (to defend him), I already did it. So, throughout the game, I was just staying disciplined to make sure I don’t let any loose gaps to allow him to get back in rhythm.” Using his strength to keep Tass from the basket forced more difficult shots from the preseason all WCC selection. Without the post being a viable option, Saint Mary’s had to play outside of their preferred offensive sets.

SDSU also pressured Tass defensively. Mensah was a central part of the offense, receiving post touches early and often. “It builds confidence at the early stage of the game,” Mensah said. “The earlier I’m able to get going, the better it is for me. Coach Dutcher being aware of that is making sure I get the ball at the early stages.” The result was complete domination of Saint Mary’s most important player

In the pick and roll, the strategy for most of the game was for Mensah and Tomaic to hang back, hedge the ball handler until his defender could get back into the picture. With ten minutes to go in the game, SDSU changed its defense and switched all ball screens. As they have all season, SDSU’s guards proved adept at guarding taller players, and the Aztecs’ bigs were able to contain smaller players.

Most teams use zone defense as a change-up for how they provide different looks for opposing offenses. The versatility of the Aztecs means they can keep their opponents from getting too comfortable without having to leave their man to man defense.

3. Hitting Open Shots

“… we all know the offensive woes we had against BYU. But (tonight) we played with a little better rhythm offensively and made some jump shots,” Coach Dutcher explained in the post-game news conference. “…We shared (the ball). It wasn’t just one guy, Matt Mitchell, having to get 30 something for us to win or to have a chance to win. The points were pretty evenly distributed. We got contributions from everybody.”

SDSU has players on their team who command the attention of the opposition. Matt Mitchell frequently is allowed to work one on one because of the focus teams have been paying to Jordan Schakel after his terrific start to the season. When Mitchell gets going, double teams come his way, particularly when he has the ball in the post. Add in the increased pace of play brought by Terrell Gomez, and the result is open shots will be available to this team.

At least one-fourth of the Aztecs’ field goal attempts were open shots Tuesday. They made seven of the eleven attempts when they were not guarded. Between the extra number of free throws and these seven shots, that was the difference in the game.

Saint Mary’s actually had fifteen more field goal attempts than the Aztecs. The Gaels had ten more offensive rebounds and two fewer turnovers, so they had 12 more possessions. How many times have the Aztecs won when they shot worse than their opponents because they won these aspects of the game? Yet, on Tuesday, it was the Aztecs who flipped this script and dominated a game by creating and hitting open shots.

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