Lineup change sparks 25-point win for SDSU over East Carolina

by Patrick Carr, Sports Editor

Maybe it was the fact that the game wasn’t played on an early Saturday afternoon.

Maybe it was the increased energy the Aztecs came out with.

Maybe head coach Steve Fisher got so angry that he needed to change something drastically, like the starting lineup.

Either way, the San Diego State men’s basketball team that took the floor on Monday night against East Carolina University was completely different than the one that laid an egg two days earlier against Little Rock.

SDSU passed, ran, defended, hustled and surprisingly shot lights-out in a 79-54 win over the Pirates, who three days earlier lost by single digits to No. 14 UC Berkeley on the road.

It was fueled by a different starting lineup that saw senior forward Winston Shepard, senior center Skylar Spencer and sophomore forward Malik Pope benched in favor of redshirt-freshman forward Zylan Cheatham, junior guard Dakarai Allen and senior center Angelo Chol.

“I’m not a guy that when you lose, I’m going to change the offense, blame someone else or make lineup changes. I just felt like that was the thing to do,” head coach Steve Fisher said. “So, I did it.”

ECU came out in an unconventional, double-teaming 3-2 zone and forced the Aztecs to shoot. They did, and then some.

It started with an onslaught seemingly out of nowhere, a blistering 16-0 run to open the game in which SDSU scored on its first seven possessions without missing a shot.

Sophomore guard Trey Kell, much beleaguered by poor shooting this season, had eight of those points on a perfect 3-for-3 clip.

The Pirates finally scored, and then freshman point guard Jeremy Hemsley hit two 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions, starting 3-for-3 from downtown, to satisfy what turned into a bloodthirsty crowd very quickly.

Then SDSU brought out the bench, which had been so lethal in previous games because it included guys like Allen, Cheatham and freshman guard Ben Perez.

This time it included Pope, Spencer and Shepard.

“The coaches made a statement, really,” Hemsley said about the seniors getting benched. “It didn’t make me feel nervous or anything like that, it’s just you perform or you don’t play.”

“I think the older guys did a good job of not letting coming off the bench get to them. They had the same mindset that they had every game,” Hemsley said.

And the bench went on a run of its own, a 10-point burst that took the score from an already impressive 22-9 to an absurd 32-9 with 9:06 to go in the first half. Kell hit a jumper, then Shepard got the ball on the left wing, drove the lane and slammed down emphatically with two hands.

The runs were also helped by quicker and smarter passing. SDSU tallied assists on seven of its first eight field goals of the game and finished with a season-high 17 assists.

Another impressive statistic was 44: the amount of points the Aztecs scored in the first half, one more than the woeful 43 they scored the entirety of Saturday’s game (less than the football team’s 52 against UNLV that same night).

ECU’s main troublemaker coming into the game was 6-foot-7-inch senior guard Caleb White, who came in averaging 19.3 points in the team’s three games while playing 116 of the Pirates’ 120 minutes.

He was shut down to just three points by a combination of defenders, including Hemsley and Allen, who made just his second start of the season despite coming into the game as SDSU’s second-leading scorer with 11.5 points per game.

SDSU didn’t drastically improve its turnover amount from Saturday, but the Aztecs did force 14 and cashed in with 25 points off those turnovers.

ECU head coach Jeff Lebo threw in another tactical change in the second half after the Pirates found themselves down by 23 at halftime.

On offensive possessions, the Pirates would set two screens between the wing and the top of the key to try to clog SDSU defenders, and it worked for awhile until the Aztecs made adjustments.

Cheatham showed more flashes of his athleticism with nine points and eight rebounds in his first career start. Early in the second half, he grabbed a steal, kicked the ball outside, got the ball back on the baseline and drove for a two-hand jam.

A more confident Kell finished with 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting.

“I felt like myself out there,” Kell said. “I felt like how I did back in high school. I felt like any shot I was taking, it felt good.”

That confidence went on full display in the second half, even after the torrid start to the game. Kell hit a step-back 3-pointer with a defender in his face and with the shot clock winding down to make it 73-54 with 3:10 remaining.

With how well the lineup appeared to work Monday against ECU, would Fisher possibly make the same move again on Thursday against Cal? He wasn’t sure, but Hemsley liked what he saw.

“I don’t think the lineup matters, I just want to see the same intensity,” Hemsley said.

Plus and minus

The plus-minus stat looks at how many more points a team has scored than the other team with a certain player on the floor.

Hemsley’s plus-minus was plus-25. Shepard’s was plus-20 after scoring 16 points and six rebounds.