LONG BEACH — The streak will live to end some other day.
Tuesday night’s game at Long Beach State was not supposed to be an easy game, especially with last year’s 60-59 comeback win still fresh in everyone’s memories. And it wasn’t.
But then again, is anything easy these days for the San Diego State men’s basketball team?
In perhaps another defining moment of the young 2015-16 season, SDSU survived a tough nonconference road tilt in the Walter Pyramid, with plenty of red-and-black-clad fans packed in the crowd against LBSU, 76-72.
“This is a good team we played in their building, and hard-fought like I thought it would be,” head coach Steve Fisher said.
It’s been 90 games since the Aztecs had a losing streak. They’ve won 22 straight after a loss, the best mark in the nation. After losing to West Virginia in Las Vegas last Friday, the main focus was going to be limiting turnovers and getting offensive rebounds.
The Aztecs did have 16 turnovers, but also had eight offensive rebounds. It was still nearly half of the 49ers’ 15 offensive boards.
SDSU led 65-61 with less than five minutes left and pushed its streak to 150 straight wins when leading with less than five minutes left.
It appeared as if SDSU was starting to coast in the first half of a game that had more of a major tournament feel to it — two passionate fan bases competing to see who could cheer louder — than a normal nonconference road game.
The Aztecs jumped out to a 19-7 lead, then led by as many as 13 before perhaps beginning to think the Big West team on the other side was an easy foe.
A bit too easy.
SDSU was content shooting 3-pointers, jacking up 18 of them in the first half and making only five. There were two reasons that led to 18 of the Aztecs’ 31 first-half shots being 3s: Long Beach’s zone defense and shot selection.
The 49ers played a 2-3 zone and a 3-2 zone, often trying a half-court trap on whomever brought the ball up, which was usually freshman point guard Jeremy Hemsley.
That acted as a jolt to SDSU, who constantly ran the ball down the court after grabbing the rebound while trying to hit a quick 3-pointer to grab momentum.
But like last year, the 49ers never quit despite trailing by double digits.
“When you play Long Beach, there are spurts that are going to be there, no matter what you say or how hard you try not to have them,” Fisher said.
LBSU cut the halftime deficit to eight with a 5-0 run, then got to work in the second half, whittling the lead down to one with a 7-0 run, then taking the lead 50-48 on sophomore guard Justin Bibbin’s 3-pointer.
And in that time, the Aztecs’ best player in their first seven games, Hemsley, was on the bench with four fouls. He wasn’t alone on the bench, either. Senior center Angelo Chol had four fouls, as did fellow senior Skylar Spencer and junior guard Dakarai Allen.
Redshirt-freshman forward Zylan Cheatham, after sitting the last 18:19 of the first half with two quick fouls, sat most of the second half in foul trouble, as well.
Still, SDSU wouldn’t let its rough start to the season continue, and part of it can be attributed to sophomore guard Trey Kell, who, although not regarded as a shooter, went on a tear late in the second half to force LBSU to shoot long balls just to keep up.
Kell made three 3-pointers in a row in the second half, his most important one coming with the shot clock winding down, and it gave SDSU a 58-56 lead with 6:34 left.
“That shot just gave me the good feeling for the rest of the game,” Kell said.
His fourth long ball of the night came with under four minutes left and gave SDSU a 71-63 lead, which eventually proved unassailable.
The unsung hero in the first half might’ve been freshman guard Ben Perez. The chippy walk-on had 10 points on a perfect 4-of-4 mark, including 2-of-2 from 3-point range.