Nevada came into Viejas Arena Thursday night riding a two-game winning streak. After 40 minutes of back-and-forth basketball, that streak was ended and San Diego State men’s basketball came out on top with a 65-60 victory.
The hard-fought match was in the hands of the Wolf Pack (8-4, 3-2 Mountain West Conference) until Jordan Schakel made a pivotal 3-pointer with 2:04 left in the game to give the Aztecs (8-2, 2-1 MWC) the lead, and they never looked back.
Head coach Brian Dutcher said the outcome marked a statement win for his team.
“To be able to hang in there, and (senior guard) Jordan (Schakel) make a big three down the stretch and then get the stops we got the game on the line, says a lot about the character of this team even when things are not going great,”’ Dutcher said. “We have an ability to hang in there long enough and make timely plays to win the game.”
The Aztecs’ largest lead of the game was just seven points, and it came down to the little things that separated the two teams. Here are three observations on how SDSU pulled away from the Wolf Pack.
1. Aztecs took fouls — and free throws — to the bank
The Aztecs were given ample opportunities from the free throw line and they took full advantage of that for the most part, sinking 86.4% of their FT attempts. Dutcher noticed this as well.
“A stat that I was really pleased with is that we were 19-for 22 from the foul line in a really close game and we needed every one of those,” Dutcher said. “So I am proud of the way we stepped up and made free throws during the game and down the stretch.”
To some, it’s easy to say that without the free throws, SDSU could have lost the game, but how close would the game have been without free throws?
In the first half, the Aztecs scored just one more free throw than the Wolf Pack. It’s in the second half, however, when free throws mattered most.
The Scarlet and Black outscored Nevada 33-32 in the second half. Fourteen of the Aztecs’ 33 points came from the free throw line, while just 19 points from the field. Only seven of the Wolf Pack’s second-half points came from the free throw line, leaving Nevada with 25 points from field goals.
Without second-half free throws, Nevada outscores SDSU 25-19 — a six-point advantage in a game that was won by five points.
2. Nathan Mensah does it all (again)
The 6-foot-10 junior forward scored 16 points for the Aztecs and made eight of his 10 pivotal free throws while also adding seven rebounds and two blocks.
He has scored no less than 11 points in four of his last six games, and has no less than five rebounds in all but two games this season. SDSU lost the two games Mensah has had less than five rebounds in a game.
His 75 total rebounds are 26 more than the next highest total by a single Aztec in the 2020-21 squad.
Mensah had the most first-half points (11) by an Aztec against Nevada. He said getting the ball early has helped his confidence on the court.
“It gives me confidence from my teammates to trust me to make the best play,” Mensah said. “When I get the ball in the first few minutes, it helps me in a positive manner as well.”
Dutcher said finding Mensah in the post was part of the team’s strategy to adjust to what the Wolf Pack were posing defensively.
“(Nevada was) going to stay extended on shooters and it was a good game plan, so we had to score inside,” Dutcher said. “Nathan was one-on-one inside and he was able to score some timely baskets down the stretch.”
3. Senior forward Matt Mitchell and Schakel are running mates
The senior leaders both played pivotal roles in the team’s success against Nevada. Mitchell was a source of steady production by putting up a team-high 20 points on the game while sinking nine of 10 free throw attempts. Mitchell also added 10 rebounds, marking the second double-double of his career.
With his performance, Mitchell moved up to 14th on the all-time SDSU scoring list.
“It is a blessing.” Mitchell said of the honor. “I am grateful to be able to be here four years, to be able to put the ball in the basket. I’m just trying to get wins, where I am on the scoring list, it will be where it is… I am not worried about trying to be in the top 10 or top five all-time, I am just trying to get wins and trying to win a national championship.”
Schakel’s contributions, on the other hand, came in bursts — including what was arguably the biggest shot of the game when his 3-pointer swiped a 60-58 lead from Nevada to take a one-point lead with just over two minutes to go.
Although Schakel did not have another career-high performance like he did versus Colorado State on Jan. 5 (28 points), he still made his presence known with eight points, five rebounds and a block.
The two seniors are nearly identical in some statistical categories. The duo have played 290 minutes a piece this season and have complimented each other nicely.
Though Mitchell has scored more points per game (15.4) than Schakel (13.9), Schakel has a higher field goal percentage (46%).
The Aztecs may have won Thursday’s game, but the Wolf Pack had ample scoring production from sophomore guard Grant Sherfield, who had the most points scored on the court Thursday night with 22 while adding five rebounds. Junior guard Desmond Cambridge Jr. gave the Wolf Pack a spark as well, scoring 16 points, making four 3-pointers and adding five rebounds.
It won’t be long until Nevada seeks revenge against SDSU. The MWC foes face off at Viejas Arena again on Saturday, Jan. 9 at 6 p.m.
After playing three games in the past six days, Dutcher said he’ll consider holding the Aztecs off the practice floor Friday for rest.
“There is no question we are tired,” Dutcher said. “So tomorrow, I am leaning not to put them on the floor at all. We will watch some tape and save legs… we are proud of our effort, and we are going to have to have another great effort to play this Nevada team again in two days.”