Men’s basketball put a leash on Fresno State, advance with 53-46 victory

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Noelani Sapla

Senior Nathan Mensah drives to the basket during SDSU’s 53-46 win over Fresno State.

by Jason Freund and Juan Daniel Avila

There was certainly a trend amongst the three games preceding San Diego State (22-7, 13-4 Mountain West Tournament) and Fresno State (19-13, 8-9 MWC).

Low scoring with physical defense, emphasis on physical. Winning teams escaped with margins of two, three and two points.

The Aztecs and Bulldogs decided to follow the recipe to a tee, playing tough defense and missing plenty of shots but still pulled out a 53-46 victory to advance to the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament.

“If you like late night basketball and defense, this was your game,” head coach Brian Dutcher said. “It was a struggle to score and I thought we pressed too hard in the first half trying to score on the first side of the floor… we know every time we play them (Fresno State), what it’s going to be like.”

Indeed, the Aztecs appeared to be pressing hard trying to put the basketball in the bucket. As a team, the Scarlet and Black shot just 36% from the field.

Head coach Justin Hutson’s — a former member of Dutcher’s coaching staff — defensive plan revolved around taking away SDSU’s interior shots and doubling up key shooters when they entered the paint.

He notably zeroed in on senior Matt Bradley and, to Hutson’s credit, the plan worked. Bradley attempted just two shots and missed them both in the first half. 

To the Aztecs’ credit, the Bulldogs weren’t shooting that well either, but still made 45.8% of their shots yet only led by three at halftime.

Dutcher called an audible at halftime and made some slight changes to his defense, opting for more interior defense and challenging Fresno State to take 3’s at the perimeter. 

Not a bad idea when the Bulldogs took seven 3’s in the first half and either hit air or the rim. 

When the Bulldogs make two 3-pointers to take a six-point lead… back to the drawing board.

Minutes would tick by as both teams lifted up shot after shot but very slowly, momentum shifted into SDSU’s favor. 

Buoyed by a white-hot crowd populated mostly by traveling SDSU fans, shots taken by SDSU that would normally miss instead hit nothing but net.

Each time a shot hit its mark, the crowd — conducted by members of The Show sitting just above the court — serenaded the arena with thunderous applause. For a while, it seemed like the team had never left the comfy confines of Viejas Arena.

“We love our fans so much and they show us so much support,” senior Adam Seiko said. “Not just here, but really everywhere we go on the road. And so, to have them here and have the majority of just crowd wearing red and black, it was good to see them and they just cheered us on and they kept the energy high all game.”

Seiko should know, as he fed into the frenzy by scoring 11 points, including a second-half 3-pointer to cut Fresno State’s lead to just one. One missed free throw and a layup from junior Lamont Butler tied the game up at 37.

Next in line for a clutch shot was sophomore Chad Baker-Mazara, the recently named Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year. The sophomore snapped up a turnover and turned it into points with a heads-up layup then banged in a 3-point shot to give SDSU a lead they wouldn’t surrender the rest of the game.

If that wasn’t enough, junior Keshad Johnson’s layup and ensuing and-one free throw sealed Fresno State’s fate.

Next up on the docket is Colorado State, whom the Aztecs handily beat 79-49 on Jan. 8 then lost by one point on Feb. 4 on a … questionable… non-foul that wasn’t called on Bradley’s final shot of the game.

The rubber match is set for March 11 at the Thomas and Mack Center. 

Who will win? Who knows? But what can be predicted is that SDSU fans will be even louder than before.