Aztecs turn on second-half scoring to take down No. Gonzaga
San Diego State (11-2) strode confidently into hostile territory in Spokane Saturday ready to take on No. 13 ranked Gonzaga (9-4). Their mission was to play a Gonzaga Bulldogs team that had not lost a non-conference game at home since 2015. Mission accomplished as the Aztecs fought tenaciously, caging the Bulldogs 84-74. This was just the third home loss for Gonzaga since the start of the 2017 season. The Aztecs finish their non-conference schedule 11-2, with their only losses against ranked BYI and Grand Canyon. Teams usually leave McCarthy Athletic Center with their tails between their legs. A raucous sell-out crowd of 6,000 was left in stunned silence, having seen their Bulldogs handed a rare home defeat.
The Aztecs were led by guard Reese Waters who scored 22 points and all-league forward Jaedon LeDee followed up with 20 points and 7 rebounds. Darrion Trammel came ofrf the bench and contributed a season-high 17 points, helping to keep the Aztecs close. Gonzaga was paced by Wyoming transfer forward Graham Ike with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Anton Watson and Ryan Nembhard contributed as well with 16 and 15 points respectively.
This game was all about the Aztecs, who held the game close through the first half and began to dominate in the second half. The Aztecs outscored Gonzaga 46-37 in the second half. Bench play was key for the Aztecs as they contributed 32 points. The Aztecs were a blistering 50% from the field and controlled the defensive rebounds 25-24. The Aztecs built a 15-point lead in the second half and were able to withstand a Gonzaga rally to hold on to their ten-point margin. The Aztecs were also 12 of 16 from the free throw line, hitting just enough to maintain consistency.
Coach Brian Dutcher said that the Aztecs ‘were going to challenge ourselves by going to play at visiting sites”. He also added, “we played tough and found a way to concentrate to make enough plays to get a win here.” One has to be pleased with the Aztecs' overall non-conference record. Some still lament the Grand Canyon loss, but that may have helped to build confidence and a never-give-up attitude. The preseason included wins against Washington, St. Mary’s, California, UC San Diego, Stanford, and now Gonzaga. The schedule might seem easier heading into conference play, but the Mountain West is by far, the toughest conference among the so-called non-power conferences. The Aztecs are joined in lofty territory by Colorado State 12-1 and ranked 15th, Nevada at 12-1, New Mexico at 12-1, Utah State at 12-1, San Diego State at 11-2 and Boise State at 9-4. The depth is tremendous. These teams will likely cannibalize each other during the season, to see if one will rise to the top. The odds on early favorites are the Rams from CSU. They are deep, talented, and have quality wins against Boston College, Creighton, Colorado, and Washington. The only loss is a three-point defeat at the hands of St. Mary’s. Three of Washington’s losses are to MWC teams. The Huskies own a win over Gonzaga. St. Mary’s owns a 3-1 record against MWC teams. The early analysis is that the MWC plays well against quality teams and have shown they should be able to have perhaps 4-5 teams in the tournament and should be able to make a deep run. Will the Aztecs or the conference have someone in the Final Four again? Of course no one knows now, but the advent of conference play should provide more excitement than has been seen in recent years. The Aztecs next face Fresno State on January 3 and UNLV on the 6th, both at home. Expect the SDSU crowd to be loud and proud. Each team will need to play their best as there will be very few drop offs in the conference. UNLV, San Jose State, Fresno, Wyoming and Air Force are the lower tier, but have shown they can be competitive and come away with pocket wins. Let the games begin! Happy 2024.