Aztecs continue dominance over Spartans with a complete game 72-51 dismantling
Viejas Arena again proved to be the ultimate sacrificial altar for visiting teams Saturday night as the Aztecs dispatched San Jose State 72-51 in convincing fashion. The Aztecs, (17-4, 8-1 MWC) took a 33-14 halftime lead on the back of a 10-minute streak that saw San Jose State (13-9, 4-5 MWC) score only one point. Tenacious Aztec defense and cold Spartan shooting quickly disintegrated a fairly close game into a one-sided clinic. The Aztecs forced thirteen turnovers while the Spartans were ice-cold shooting with 35% on the night. Keshad Johnson proved to be too much for the Spartans as he scored sixteen points and added eight rebounds. The 6’7 forward from Oakland had his way at both ends of the court, showcasing his athletic skill. Matt Bradley contributed fourteen points despite only shooting 5/13 from the field. Nathan Mensah continued to show why he is a dominating inside player with eight points and eight rebounds. Lamont Butler added eight points and Jaedon McGee added nine. On the night the Aztecs shot 47% from the field on 27/58 shooting and added five 3-pointers. They continue to struggle from the charity stripe, only managing 59% on 13/22 attempts. As the season winds down, this will be an area the Aztecs will need to improve upon. Continuing at this level could lead them to close losses down the stretch. The Spartans meanwhile, coming off of a convincing 30-point victory over Air Force, struggled early on with their shooting, while still keeping the game close. Omari Moore, the Spartan’s key player, did not attempt a shot until nearly ten minutes had gone in the first half. He would finish the game with eleven points, but only had three in the first half. Cold shooting and frigid 3-point shooting, 4/19, 21%, doomed the Spartans and contributed to a 33-14 deficit at halftime. The Spartans were led off the bench by Robert Vaihola with twelve points, Alvaro Cardenas with nine, and Trey Anderson with eight. The Spartan's theme of hot and cold continued on Saturday. The first seven minutes the Spartans and Aztecs were essentially even and then an Aztec 21-3 run finished off the first half. The Spartans have struggled with cold shooting and an inability to stop opponent's runs. An earlier 17-0 run by Nevada sealed the Spartan’s fate in that game. This time cold shooting and superior defense and talent by San Diego State quickly closed the door on any upset by the Spartans. Coach Tim Miles is certainly on the right path with the Spartans though. It will just take more time, patience, talent and consistency to develop. The Spartans play Wyoming at home next week.
The Aztecs supporting cast of players continue to evolve. In addition to the preseason stalwarts of Butler and Bradley, Jaedon LeDee, Nathan Mensah and Keshad Johnson have contributed, helping the Aztecs to arguably be one of the top two teams in the conference. The earlier loss to New Mexico shows that they may be in for a fight for the conference championship. Coach Brian Dutcher’s formula of stressing defense first has led to the Aztec's success on offense. 13 turnovers against only three is a recipe for success at any level. Strong bench play will give the Aztec's depth as they near tournament time. The Aztecs will be at Nevada on Tuesday night in what looks like an intriguing matchup against the Wolfpack. The Aztecs beat them 74-65 back on January 10 and since then the Wolfpack have losses against Boise State and UNLV and wins against Utah State and New Mexico in double overtime. With an overall record of 16-5 and 6-2 in conference put Nevada square in the tournament conversation. They will need to reach the 20-win mark for serious consideration. Looking ahead for the Aztecs, they have two matchups against Boise State and a rematch against New Mexico in February. The Aztecs could reasonably finish the remainder of the season with seven wins, putting them at 23-7. Figuring a split with Boise and a loss at one of their remaining games should put the Aztecs firmly in the driver's seat for the MWC tournament and a strong NCAA bid. I am predicting a 5-7 seeding for the Aztecs. With the continued development of Aztec players and strong bench play, the Aztecs should win both the regular season and the conference tournament and await a bid. Please, let’s get something done with free throws. This is certainly the Achilles heel for the Aztecs this year.