If San Diego State men's basketball had a bucket list, they would be making tremendous progress this season. Included on the list would be beating Air Force at Clune Arena, something they hadn't done the previous two years. On Sunday, the Aztecs checked another box with a 79-72 win over the Falcons.
Add this to winning the Wooden Legacy tournament, beating Kansas at Kansas, knocking off three ranked teams away from home and being ranked in both polls. Not a bad first half of the season. And for their efforts, they are being recognized on a national basis. Head coach Steve Fisher was named Midseason Coach of the Year by two CBSSports.com staff writers and one ESPN.com and NBCSports.com analyst.
San Diego State is of the best defensive teams in the nation, but Air Force was able to shoot 51.9 percent from the field. The key was their points came in ones and twos, rather than the threes that are typically a mainstay of their arsenal. The Aztecs actually shot better beyond the three-point line than the Falcons, going 7-for-14 or 50 percent compared to 7-of-20 or 35 percent for Air Force.
Air Force led a good portion of the first half, with both teams taking the lead back and forth. Down 24-27 with 2:45 remaining in the first half, the Aztecs closed out the opening period on a 7-0 run and took a four point halftime lead. They continued the momentum in the second half, scoring the first seven points.
The front court of the Aztecs did a tremendous job, especially in the first half. Josh Davis had nine points and eight rebounds while J.J. O'Brien had nine points and seven rebounds at the midway point. Points off of turnovers and second chance points from offensive rebounds were key to the Aztecs victory. O'Brien finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Davis had 13 points and 11 rebounds.
All told, five Aztecs finished in double figures. Xavier Thames matched his season average of 16 points and had five assists. Winston Shepard had 14 points and six rebounds. Matt Shrigley had a terrific second half to finish with 13 points. After going 0-4 in the first half, Shrigley went 5-for-6 in the second half, including three three-pointers.
The Aztecs only shot 60 percent from the free throw line, so their struggles continue from the stripe. Winston Shepard missed the front end of a one-and-one with 46 seconds remaining and then went 1-of-2 from the line with 21 seconds left. Making these free throws would have given the Aztecs a double digit win instead of letting Air Force get within two possessions in the final minute.
In the pregame interview, coach Fisher said, "It's going to be a grind it out game. We can't allow them to make 12 three-pointers." And they didn't. They Aztecs forced 14 turnovers and held the Falcons to seven three-pointers. The Aztecs took care of the basketball, turning it over just seven times, and came away with a tough road victory the way a ranked team should. San Diego State should be knocking on the door of the Top 10 when the next rankings come out.
Next up, the Aztecs take on Fresno State at home on Wednesday, January 15 at 7 pm Pacific time.