A dominating first half performance by San Diego State men’s basketball helped the Aztecs notch a 98-61 win over the Air Force Falcons on Friday, Jan. 22 at Clune Arena in Colorado Springs.
In a game that was crucial to keep SDSU’s tournament dreams alive after a two-game losing streak, the Aztecs entered 7,081-foot elevation with a new starting lineup that did not mess around.
Aztecs’ freshman guard Lamont Butler got his first career-start for the Aztecs, along with senior guard Terrell Gomez getting his first start in an Aztec uniform.
The elevation clearly wasn’t an issue for the Aztecs tonight. 25 points off of turnovers allowed the Aztecs to take a 52-16 lead going into halftime. This 37-point halftime lead is the largest road game lead in Mountain West Conference history for the Aztecs.
The Aztecs ended the night putting 98 points up on the board which matches the Aztecs’ school record for most points in a conference game.
Here are three observations from tonight’s game.
1. Air Force turnovers allow Aztecs to dominate
The Aztecs got off to a slow start when their first four possessions resulted in turnovers. Luckily, the Scarlet and Black had their defense to thank for keeping them in the game.
The Falcons led this game 6-5 with 14:16 to go in the first half, but then turnover chaos ensued.
The Aztecs would go on to only have one more turnover for the remainder of the half. The Falcons, on the other hand, had 15 turnovers resulting in 25 points for the Aztecs.
Once the Aztecs got the ball rolling, they never stopped. SDSU went on a 22-0 run over the course of nearly six minutes, with defense keeping the Falcons from scoring for six minutes. The Aztecs made 11 straight field goals and ended the first half on a 20-5 run.
“We played at a high level defensively and took them out of a lot of what they do well,” head coach Brian Dutcher said. “I think it was with our pressure. That got us ignited offensively. We shot the ball well, we shared the ball. Everything we worked on this week to try to make it difficult on them offensively was effective.”
A dominant first-half performance where the Aztecs shot 70.4% of their field goals allowed the team to come out in the second half with the same momentum to close the game.
Junior guard Adam Seiko said the team focused on playing free which allowed them to score the way they did.
“It’s just about playing free, and that’s that’s what we talked about in our film sessions after Utah State,” Seiko said. “It seems like sometimes we’re iffy on stuff and we just have to learn how to play free. Play free and know that we’re confident in our games, and once we play free then we’ll be able to get out there and score, and our defense will obviously work for itself.”
2. Aztecs’ bench emerges
The Aztecs ended the night with 57 total bench points.
Next man up has been the mentality for the Aztecs, and that was evident tonight as players coming off the bench emerged with strong performances.
One thing that helps this Aztecs team set themselves apart from their opponents is the flexibility of players coming off the bench. Seiko has started several games this season, yet also has no problem coming off the bench.
He played off the bench making four 3-pointers and one field goal for a career-high 14 points versus the Falcons.
Seiko said the Aztecs’ bench remains mentally prepared for any situation and focuses on encouraging teammates.
“Being taken off the starting lineup, it’s not a big deal, honestly,” Seiko said. “I’ve been coming off the bench my whole career here, so I know how to come off the bench. I’ve got to do my job as well to keep myself mentally prepared and encourage my teammates regardless of the situation.”
Staying mentally prepared and trusting teammates is what allows players like Seiko to show up with a big performance.
“If I can keep myself mentally prepared, then I’ll have games like this and I’ll go out and perform well,” Seiko said. “We just want to encourage each other, that’s the biggest thing is encouragement.”
Junior forward Aguek Arop also came off the bench with a career-high performance for the Aztecs scoring a total of 14 points.
Dutcher spoke about the way Seiko and Arop show up each day with a positive attitude and will to win.
“They’re both wired the right way,” Dutcher said. “If they were kids with attitudes and came from that kind of thinking, then they might not be able to respond but both these kids want to win. They both played a high level, whether that’s starting or coming off the bench. It’s a long season, so they’ll play their way in and out of that starting lineup as the season goes on because they’re both very effective players.”
Five different Aztecs finished scoring in double figures. Senior guard Jordan Schakel scored 18 points, junior forward Nathan Mensah finished with 13 and freshman guard Keith Dinwiddie Jr. had 13 points off the bench in his first minutes in a month following a hip injury.
3. Keeping the track record at Air Force
The Aztecs now lead the series 22-17 on the road at Air Force with tonight’s win. The close margin of this series speaks of just how hard it is to play at elevation.
Mensah has played in what Dutcher calls “shorter stints” due to the effect the altitude sickness has had on him.
Coming out with a successful win on the road is all about making adjustments, which is exactly what the Aztecs did in practice leading up to this matchup. They even had three full days to perfect it.
The Aztecs focused on a new offense tonight for the zone defense that the Falcons run.
“We basically over three days installed a whole offense,” Dutcher said. “A lot of times you’re only good at what you practice so three days helped us. We just played a four-out motion and did a good job cutting in and out of that zone.”
Schakel said the key to another successful performance in game two is matching the Falcons’ energy in the offense they run at high altitude.
“Part of the reason why the record is why it is is because the offense they run and it plays well into the altitude here,” Schakel said. “They’re very, very good at their offense, getting you leaning back door.”
Schakel said his team is in shape to match their performance, and an essential component is having a strong mindset.
“You just have to match their energy,” Schakel said. “It’s more of a mindset thing — we’re in good enough shape to do it. You feel tired but you’ve just got to push through. And we have the luxury of having a deep bench, a lot of guys can come off the bench.”
The Aztecs face the Falcons for game two of the series on Sunday night. Tip off is set for 7 p.m. PST with TV broadcast on FS1.