The Daily Aztec

Viejas Arena comes alive in Aztecs’ close victory

Wesley Beights, Video Editor

by Patrick Carr, Senior Staff Columnist

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Clang. Groan. Silence.

Those are some of the naturally occurring sounds inside Viejas Arena during a San Diego State men’s basketball game. One can usually hear those sounds when SDSU shoots free throws at a 62.1 percent rate, or just in general when the team plays at all.

It’s been pretty quiet so far this season inside the arena during basketball games. Routine victory after routine victory suits the fans at their leisure. There are no slam dunks, no big 3-pointers, just lots of defense and missed shots.

But on Wednesday night against California State University, Long Beach, one clang in particular turned the groans and silence into thunderous pandemonium and sighs of relief.

LBSU’s sophomore guard Travis Hammonds grabbed a rebound with two seconds left and let a half-court shot fly that clanged off the front of the rim and into the night.

That clang at the end of a tense, back-and-forth, anything-but-routine game brought a huge sigh of relief from the crowd that saw the Aztecs snatch a 60-59 victory against the inspired 49ers.

That clang was also louder than any sound the crowd made.

Fans and students who go to SDSU men’s basketball games now expect the best. And why shouldn’t they? The team has made massive strides under head coach Steve Fisher.

The team’s been ranked in the top-25, gone to the NCAA Sweet 16 twice, won numerous conference championships and defeated many high-caliber teams in Fisher’s tenure.

The expectations have never been higher, and it previously seemed as if those expectations might be breeding an apathetic fan base that feels entitled to and expects big wins against “pushovers” such as LBSU.

The usually deafening “I Believe” chant before the game was performed by an 80 percent-full student section that was likely suffering from the start of finals week. Completely understandable.

The Aztecs then ran out to a 12-point lead in the first half, but slowly saw the lead evaporate as LBSU closed the first half on a 10-2 run. The only audible noises from the crowd were the serenade of boos directed at the officials as they called six player control fouls on the Aztecs.

In the second half the 49ers struck gold as they buried shot after shot. Every time SDSU would make a bucket, LBSU would respond through their leading scorer senior guard Mike Caffey, who finished with 20 points.

All of a sudden, the Aztecs’ six-point lead dwindled to an eight-point deficit.

The crowd’s reaction? Half-hearted claps of encouragement on SDSU’s offensive possessions.

Maybe the crowd was simply reflecting the lethargic demeanor the team had shown in its last three home games, along with the horror-show in Seattle last Sunday.

Senior guard Aqeel Quinn and freshman forward Zylan Cheatham were out hurt. Yet, they were both standing on the sideline, jumping and imploring the crowd to wake up.

The crowd wouldn’t. And then the Caffey hit another 3-pointer and the 49ers held the Aztecs’ NCAA Tournament resume over an open flame.

Only then did the crowd of around 11,000 realize their precious reputation and expectations were about to be shattered.

Senior forward J.J. O’Brien stole the ball and took it to the other end for a layup to bring LBSU’s lead down to 52-49 with 5:25 left. The fans roared.

And then the team decided to make a collective effort to win. Junior forward Winston Shepard had the ball down by three with four seconds on the shot clock.

Shepard passed it to senior forward Dwayne Polee II.

Polee drained a 3-pointer. The fans roared louder.

About a minute later, O’Brien grabbed an offensive rebound and tipped the ball in to give SDSU a two-point lead. The fans sounded like a jet plane taking off.

Polee hit a baseline runner off the glass from a tight angle. The fans blew the roof off.

And then Hammonds’ half-court prayer careened off the rim before most of the arena could sigh in relief.

What happened Wednesday is an example of a beast finally being awakened inside “fortress Viejas.” The crowd — frustrated most times, bored most other times, but loud when it matters — reflects the team in a couple ways: a frustrating and misfiring offense, a stifling defense that hardly allows a field goal and clinical in crunch time.

When it’s time to step up, the Aztecs are capable. So is the crowd.

 

Read the game recap here.

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