Three observations: Aztecs use big run to fuel 19-point victory over UC Irvine

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Then-junior guard Trey Pulliam guards a Tennessee State player during the Aztecs’ 62-49 win over the Tigers on Nov. 25, 2019 at Viejas Arena.

by Breven Honda, Senior Staff Writer

San Diego State men’s basketball defeated UC Irvine (0-2) 77-58 on Nov. 27 at Viejas Arena. 

The Aztecs (2-0) closed the first half on an 11-0 run to extend SDSU’s lead into the half 34-25 after a neck and neck matchup through the game’s first 15 minutes. 

That 11-0 run extended to 29-4 midway into the second half en route to the 19-point victory.

Here are three observations from the game. 

1. SDSU defense continues to show resilience against Anteaters 

The Aztecs have been historically known for their defense and it continued Saturday. 

SDSU succumbed just 10 turnovers compared to UCI’s 25. Those 25 turnovers led to 26 points for the Scarlet and Black.   

A full-court press defense from SDSU is a key reason for the turnovers. 

Dutcher said the pace of the game following the big run and the turnovers helped alter the style of the game midway through the first half. 

“Our press has been very effective in the first two games,” Dutcher said. “We forced 25 turnovers today and definitely changed the tempo of the game in our favor. So, very pleased with the way we played at the defensive end.”

In addition, nine Aztecs recorded at least one steal, with senior forward Matt Mitchell and senior guard Terrell Gomez each having two.

2. Aztec bench continues to rise 

A big reason for the full-court defense is the Aztecs’ depth.

Dutcher said he can easily go to the bench and put five new players on the floor at any given time. 

“We’re deep and we’re able to pick up full court because we have numbers off the bench,” Dutcher said. “But they go four-, five-, six-minute stretches, we go to the bench and bring five fresh bodies in and it’s a cumulative effect.”

The defense created the offense and it led to 14 different Aztecs playing as shots were made all across the board. All 11 players who were on the court for at least four minutes each had at least three points. 

41 of SDSU’s 77 points came from their bench as sophomore forward Keshad Johnson led all scorers with a career-high 14 points. 

Johnson said he got motivation from his coaches to play hard but with ease as 13 of his 14 points came in the ensuing half.

“Second half, (the) coaches just told me to just play loose,” Johnson said. “They believe in me, so they just basically gave me that pep talk to just be loose and play your game. And once that happened, (that) just gave me the keys to excel.”

Dutcher said Johnson grasped what it takes to play at the college level last season, so by the time he became a sophomore, he could fit right and gel with his teammates. 

“Last year was a learning process, so he was more worried about where he had to be all the time and trying to please the coaches and now he’s playing freer,” Dutcher said. “He knows where he’s supposed to be. He knows what he’s supposed to do. And now he’s opened up his offensive game a little bit because he’s comfortable. ”

3. Pulliam adjusting as the primary point guard

Leading up to the season opener against UCLA on Wednesday, it seemed like the battle for the point guard position was between senior guards Trey Pulliam and Cal State Northridge transfer Terrell Gomez. 

As a junior last season, Pulliam learned from NBA first-round draft pick Malachi Flynn and an experienced fifth-year senior in KJ Feagin. 

Pulliam, who scored nine points on 4-of-6 shooting against UCI, said he has converted from going to a sixth man role to a full-time starter effectively while remembering things he learned from Flynn and Fegin.

“I just try to pick up on things I saw last year from Malachi and KJ and stuff like that,” Pulliam said. “Implementing it into my game and just kind of figure out the leadership roles as I’m going. But I feel like I’m adapting well.”

Up next… 

SDSU will not be playing Colorado State to begin their Mountain West Conference schedule on Dec. 3 and 5 due to COVID-19 concerns. 

Instead, the Aztecs will face St. Katherine on Dec. 2 and San Diego Christian on Dec. 4. 

Dutcher said his team did not want too much of a layoff between this game and their next game on Dec. 10.

“I just thought we didn’t play Arizona State until Dec. 10 and I didn’t want that long a stretch without any game minutes,” Dutcher said. “Plus, these guys are tired of practicing anyway. So when we do practice we’ll get better, but they want to play games. And so it might give us a chance to continue to.”

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