SDSU 70, Fresno State 67: Amidst streak-snapping season, Aztecs flip script on Bulldogs

Many of us probably spent a good part of our weekend gearing up for and enjoying a terrific Super Bowl. For those who missed SDSU’s Saturday victory at Fresno State, just know this: The ‘team that the entire Mountain West Conference fears may be putting it all together heading into March’ picked up its most impressive win of the season. On the road. At Fresno State, who had won 13 straight MWC home games. The Aztecs defense—some say it has lost its bite—held the Bulldogs’ to its worst home offensive performance of the season (and they needed to hit a handful of wild shots on their way to 30 points in the final 10 minutes to even get to 67).

The Aztecs trailed for most of the final 8 minutes headed to halftime. A Malik Pope layup gave them the lead at the break. SDSU immediately went to work from there, building that lead to 11. Jahmel Taylor hit a three for the Bulldogs to spark a 10-0 run as the Aztecs turned it over on three of four possessions.

Turnovers may have been the story of the game—they plagued both teams in the first half. Where the Wyoming game was choppy due to excessive foul calls, this game was choppy early on because of turnovers. Turnovers also allowed Fresno to claw their way back.

The Aztecs led by one with 5:00 to play. Trey Kell would score 11 (all of his 22 points came in the second half) of the team’s final 18 and Zylan Cheatham went 4-4 from the line inside the final minute.

It’s easy to say once again that the Aztecs “almost” folded in a game they led at one point by double digits. At some point, the truth will shine through to remind the masses that basketball is a game of runs. And good teams can be expected to go on runs, especially in their own gym and/or against a key opponent.

The Aztecs will always check that box for all of their MWC opponents. So whether it’s one of the conference’s best players having a career night or Karachi Edo playing like Amar’e Stoudemire, know that the other team is always doing at least a few things right.

More notes stemming from Saturday’s win:

Hemsley’s struggles—fair, premature or overblown?

We’ve been told that Jeremy Hemsley is healthy. Maybe not 100%, as nobody is at this time of the year, but close. He played 20 minutes Saturday, his lowest such total of the season. The team can get only by with Kell and Pope carrying the offense for so long.

Look for an upcoming opponent to fixate on Kell and occasionally double Pope in the post, daring Hemsley to beat them. The Aztecs still will love their chances. Hemsley’s high-end talent didn’t disappear overnight. My best guess is that the staff wants him to find his teammates more often when he drives it. He’s still putting up tough, contested shots near the basket as a guy without a world class vertical leap and hasn’t excelled in dumping it off to a big.

One way to make reads simpler for him would be to run the stuff for him that they do for Kell. Most of Kell’s highlight reel lobs to Zylan Cheatham come after Kell curls around a screen from his red-haired friend. If that lob isn’t there, then Kell is probably looking at a wide open lane. More importantly, the other three Aztecs are all on the weak side of the floor—all five defenders are visible. This makes it easier to know who’s open if one of those weak side defenders drops in to help.

More ‘4 out’ fun even with Z

With Cheatham back but coming off the bench, we saw more of a run of the mill 4 out approach on offense. The opening possessions of the game were fantastic: Pope backed in for a score, dimed up Allen on a basket cut, and Hemsley got sent to the line after attacking a scrambling defense.

But then what? That’s where the team needs to grow. Smart teams will adjust. They may double Pope or choose to leave specific guys open again and again to help in the right places. Cheatham even spaced out on a few possessions when Pope was posted up.

He should continue to do so. If a big is guarding Cheatham, he’ll still be able to catch and drive it to at least force more help. He can also screen for his closest teammate while Pope goes to work to leverage the fact that teams won’t guard him out there against them. The result could leave Hemsley/Kell/Shrigley/Hoetzel wide open in the opposite corner waiting on a skip pass from Pope. This would be SDSU’s rendition of a ‘Hammer’ play—something the Spurs run quite often for/with a guy you may have heard of:

The game ball goes to…

Two game balls may be in order for this one. Dakarai Allen was active away from the ball as he poured in 9 first half points in his first stint. Although Deshon Taylor and Jaron Hopkins got hot and hit some tough shots late, Fresno’s main source of offense from the wing, Paul Watson, shot just 1-7. That was to the delight of Allen, who mirrored Watson’s every move throughout many of the game’s early possessions.

You see the beauty in what Allen does as a defender against double digits scorers like Watson. Watson is not an elite athlete, but he is skilled and experienced. There was nothing he could do on his own to create any separation to get a shot off against Allen. Saturday was yet another reminder to fans that SDSU has one of the nation’s best 1-on-1 perimeter defenders.

Valentine Izundu turned plenty of heads, too, with 8 points, 6 boards and 3 blocks off the bench. The Aztecs needed his strength, length and bounce to battle inside with Fresno’s 300-ish pound backup big, Terrell Carter. Izundu was up for that task, although he fouled out late. Carter flexed his muscle plenty, but the sub-40% free throw shooter was forced to prove it from the line.

Thankfully, this team now has its full complement of forwards—a four man group made up of Izundu, Malik Pope, Zylan Cheatham and Max Hoetzel. We think. We learned Max Hoetzel is nursing a heel injury and he only played 7 minutes.

Building an early lead Tuesday at San Jose State will help Hoetzel’s cause a great deal—and Cheatham, too, while we’re at it. Seeing guys miss practice time on a regular basis can mess with a team’s continuity and growth from game to game, as was noted on Saturday’s broadcast. Added opportunities for Montaque Gill-Ceasar would normally be welcomed, but he did not enter the game Saturday because he was sick, per Steve Fisher.

Tuesday’s trip to San Jose will be the final tune up for the team before a revenge date with Nevada, this time at Viejas. Tuesday’s game plan? Double Brandon Clarke, rotate, box out, repeat. Some of SJSU’s role players may show up and hit some shots this time around, but this isn’t Gian Clavell. Clarke does his damage off the bounce and from the block. Teams do have the ability to do more to keep the ball out of Clarke’s hands. Aggressively fronting him may be a wise gamble to deny the ball from one of the MWC’s best with long leapers like Pope, Cheatham and Izundu.

The TV/radio breakdown for the rest of the regular season is simple. Catch ’em all on CBS Sports Network or the Mighty 1090 (AM).

Header photo via Cary Edmondson/USATSI

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