It’s still early, and there’s an entire Mountain West season ahead, but losing at home to the tiny school from 10 miles down the freeway for the first time since 2000 might not be viewed favorably by the NCAA Tournament selection committee when doling out at-large invitations in March.
San Diego State’s 73-61 loss against USD in a foul-fest at Viejas Arena on Wednesday night certainly isn’t the same anvil on its resume that the L against a bad Toreros team was four years ago at Petco Park.
It does, though, sink any momentum the Aztecs built from Saturday’s impressive win at Illinois State and puts USD’s senior-laden crew a step closer to a special season.
“It’s a day-by-day process of building a championship-level program,” USD coach Sam Scholl said, “and that was a big step tonight.”
The Toreros (7-2) caught fire in the second half, opening it by making 5 of 6 behind the arc from five different players and coaxing the Aztecs into 22.7-percent (you read that right) shooting. But this game might have been won and lost in the first half, when the Toreros were 0 of 11 on 3s and the Aztecs shot 59.1 percent – and couldn’t blow it open.
Instead, SDSU’s lead at the half was only seven, not nearly large enough to hold off a determined USD group of seniors given one last chance at emerging from the immense shadow cast by the big state school on the Mesa.
One team played with energy and efficiency, the other with entitlement and ennui.
“We get a little disrespected sometimes,” USD senior Isaiah Piniero said, “so it was a good win.”
“We didn’t take it personal,” SDSU senior Jeremy Hemsley said. “They were tougher than us.”
It got heated in the handshake line, with words exchanged between Devin Watson and some Toreros players. SDSU assistant coach Rod Palmer pulled him away.
Asked what happened, Watson said: “I’m not too fond of USD at all.”
“No reason,” he said, declining to elaborate.
The turning point was telling.
It came early in the second half, after SDSU’s Jalen McDaniels had grabbed an offensive rebound and was fouled. But he said something to somebody that the officials heard and was assessed a technical foul.
“The talking, we can’t have,” coach Brian Dutcher said. “He knows better than that. He can’t get that kind of technical. A teachable moment, and hopefully he’ll learn from it and we won’t have that again.”
That counted as a personal foul, just as the Flagrant One did that he received in the first half for firing an elbow into the mouth of Alex Floresca.
Piniero made both technical free throws for a 39-38 lead with 16:14 left, USD’s first of the game. The Aztecs missed on their next possession, and Piniero drained a 3. And a nervous hush enveloped Viejas Arena.
The Aztecs (5-3) re-took the lead on a pair of free throws from Jordan Schakel with 10:57 left as Piniero went to the bench with four fouls. But McDaniels soon got his fourth – two common fouls, the flagrant and the T – and then Schakel did 41 seconds later.
A 10-0 run gave USD a 57-49 lead, and the Aztecs tightened even more – turning it over, missing free throws, clanking chippies.
“My favorite moment,” Scholl said, “was probably when the win happened and how we handled it. We didn’t go run and storm the floor, because these are the kind of wins our program is supposed to get and supposed to aspire to. We didn’t act like we won the national championship.”
If there was a hero for the Toreros, it might not have been Piniero (21 points) or Isaiah Wright (18 points) but a true freshman from Torrey Pines High who entered the game averaging 2.6 points. Finn Sullivan had nine points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench, including an absolutely massive layup late in the shot clock for a 68-60 lead with 1:25 to go.
Scholl, already without injured 6-foot-10 starter Yauhen Massalski, opted to go small with the 6-4, 170-pound Sullivan when the 6-8, 240-pound Floresca got in foul trouble early in the second half and ultimately got No. 5. The Aztecs struggled to adjust, unable and at times unwilling to capitalize on their size advantage.
“They played with great experience,” Dutcher said of a USD team that started four seniors and a fourth-year junior. “They looked like they didn’t panic. They played their system, they played their game. And we showed our youthfulness at times.”
Watson had another big game against USD, following a 26-point performance last year with 22 on Wednesday on 9 of 14 shooting. Matt Mitchell had 13 points, and McDaniels had 12 points (3 of 9 shooting), eight rebounds and four turnovers before fouling out. No one else scored more than six.
“Devin was the only one out there really playing with heart,” said Hemsley, who had six points (2 of 8 shooting) and finishes his career 2-2 against USD. “As the other senior guard out there, I didn’t help him out. He was basically out there alone. He was our only source of offense.
“I feel like I let my team down tonight. I didn’t play like a senior should play. I left my guys hanging.”
Next up for SDSU: at Cal on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (Pac-12 Network) … Next up for USD: CSUN at home on Sunday at 1 p.m. … The Aztecs had their nine-game home win streak ended … SDSU had won eight straight against USD at home and 11 straight in games played indoors (noit counting the USD win at Petco Park in 2015 … Five players fouled out as the teams were whistled for a combined 28 fouls. Both teams shot 30 free throws …
Sitting courtside was former Aztecs wing Dwayne Polee II. He received an ovation when introduced during a timeout in the first half … The game was not on locally accessible television (only one of SDSU’s four home games has so far this season), instead shipped to something called Stadium by the Mountain West, which control rights to call home games by its schools. Stadium has some actual TV channels but none available in San Diego, meaning local fans had to watch via web stream.
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