The ESPN3 feed came back from break just in time. 9:39 left to play from Las Vegas. The Aztecs led by two. Steve Fisher walked over to his all-MWC guard near the scorer’s table. What did the coaching legend have to say? Last minute instructions for the next offensive set? One last personal remark to fire up one of his team’s leaders, hoping to put the game away early?
Maybe Fisher’s words had little to do with what would happen next. But out of that timeout, Trey Kell absolutely went off—first was his personal 7-0 run. 9 point lead. Not impressed? He wasn’t done. Across the final 9:39 of play: Trey Kell 16, UNLV Runnin’ Rebels 9.
This Aztecs team and its fans certainly expected performances like this one from one of its captains. Who was the other key contributor down the stretch for a team clawing its way toward its first true road win of the season? Zylan Cheatham? Malik Pope, perhaps? Both players watched the final 9:39 from the bench. Valentine Izundu, banged and scratched up but ready to go, closed the game for a team that had initially looked like it may not need much of his services. UNLV played tight down the stretch, knowing SDSU’s 6’10 leaper would be waiting to contest the few shots they could get near the basket.
Tuesday’s match up between two (once) bitter rival schools, between mentor (Steve Fisher) and mentee (Marvin Menzies) came to ugly, screeching halts on more than one occasion. Not even 7 minutes in, the game was tied at 13 and both teams were selectively playing with some pace.
Then came a four minute lull saved only by ridiculous Matt Shrigley triple. UNLV was building a lead. Zylan Cheatham picked up his second foul (heard that one before?) and the Aztecs turned it over on three straight possessions. Dakarai Allen stepped forward to pick up the slack—blocked shot, 2 free throws, a corner three and…his second foul. No matter, Max Hoetzel led the team to break, canning three triples in the five minutes before half.
SDSU held a lead for all of five possessions in the first half, but headed to the locker room up three. The Aztecs scored the first four to open the second and would go 6:02 before scoring again. Because UNLV’s Jovan Mooring picked up his fourth foul a minute and 26 seconds into the half, the Rebels had an even harder time at putting the ball in the bucket with their main option at point guard walking on egg shells.
The Aztecs hit a few dry spells against an inferior, shorthanded and inexperienced opponent. But the defense held the fort to put Kell in that position to take over and help his team pull away. Cheatham regained his poise to sprinkle in two wonderful post finishes and D’Erryl Williams found Izundu with a lob out of the pick and roll.
Some blog posts and talking heads will continue to knock this year’s bunch for a defense ranked in the 30s or 40s—no longer perched atop the college basketball world. The team is clearly reacting to that noise as best as any could. Being the absolute best at team defense is really, really hard. (Also, who’d like to estimate the number of D1 coaches that wish a ‘down year’ defensively would put them among the 40 or so best in the country? If you’re giving me 300, then I’ll take the over.) Steve Fisher still has as much length and athleticism at his disposal with this roster as ever before; his staff’s defensive structure and culture are intact.
San Diego State got enough stops Tuesday night and Kell found his groove in time. With a full week to recover and prep for Air Force, the Aztecs are in good shape to nab another road victory before getting back out in front of their home crowd for a crucial four day stretch: They close the month of January hosting Colorado State and Wyoming.
Those two offenses pack a nice punch. SDSU held UNLV to 10 second chance points (13 offensive rebounds) and turned it over just three times in the second half to finish the game with 10. Taking injuries and time of year into account, this nearly as good as any team in recent years has been with those two yearly points of emphasis.
What ought to be next on the agenda? For starters, the Aztecs face the tall task of putting Hemsley/Cheatham/Pope in good positions to attack the defense as Kell rounds back into form. Pope and Cheatham barely played in Tuesday’s second half, although that is no knock against them. Izundu was working and playing his tail off. Fisher can’t afford to leave Hoetzel on the bench for long with the way he’s been shooting the ball and actively fronting the post/contesting shots.
The story of this previously injury-laden season just might be turning into an embarrassment of riches. From the fan perspective, there seems to be little reason to worry, given what the team has already worked through together. Fisher has already gone to a 2-3 zone, of all defenses, so who knows? He may even lax up on his tendency to only play 8 guys. The team is healthy(ish) and has put every Mountain West Conference team on notice: The sleeping giant they had feared for months is back on its feet.
NEXT GAME: Tuesday, 1/24 @ Air Force, 6 PM PST, TV: ESPN3/Radio: Mighty 1090 AM
Header photo via Stephen Sylvanie/USATSI
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