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Spartans epic battle falls just short to 19th-ranked Aztecs

Two seconds

SJSU guard Alvaro Cardenas (13) up against SDSU guard Darrion Trammell (12), Provident Credit Union Event Center, January 9, 2024.
photo by: Vic Aquino

The buzz around Provident Credit Union Event Center started an hour before game time with San Diego State (14-2, 3-0 MW) in town.

“This felt like a road game to us,” said guard Alvaro Cardenas who was the leading Spartan scorer with 21 points. “They had more fans than we did.”

A heightened crowd of 4,299 electrified by well-travelled Aztec fans saw a tenacious battle against a noticeably smaller San Jose State team (7-9, 0-3 MW) that saw the Spartans lose a close one 81-78.

“I told our guys I was very proud of them,” said head coach Tim Miles. “They followed the game plan and adjusted and did it all with aggression and eagerness.”

With 44 seconds left in the game, the Spartans got a critical stop after Cardenas brought SJS to within two.

But headed back the other way with two seconds left, the Spartans last of many dogged drives to the basket fell short when SJS forward Trey Anderson’s layup at the rim was blocked by Aztec forward Jay Pal. Anderson finished with 11 points.

“I’ve been saying we could play with anyone in the country,” said Spartan guard MJ Amey who finished with 20 hard-earned points. “I keep saying it and I think we proved it tonight.”

No tale of two halves

“I was very proud of what we did, because I felt the last couple games our intensity went down in the second-half,” said Cardenas, “But we kept it up the whole game this time. It just didn’t go our way at the very end.”

Cardenas and Anderson kept the Spartans afloat in the first-half with 10 and 11 points, respectively. The collective aggressive play had the Spartans only down by one at the half.

“We operated really well offensively with 78 points on 65 possessions,” said Miles. “We got into the paint, made some 3s and got to the foul line.”

“Defensively, we were OK,” added Miles.

The Spartans game plan was to be aggressive by going inside more, not relying on the three ball too much and matching the Aztecs intensity. All said - most of the mission was accomplished.

But too much Ledee down the stretch

“We’re mismatched inside,” said Miles. “We knew we were going to be against it and came in with some double teams.”

Aztec forward Jaedon Ledee’s game-high 31 points proved to be the overwhelming inside force the Spartans could not handle well-enough - often doubled and at times with four Spartans around Ledee.

“The ones that frustrated me were the ones where we’re battling inside and we’re fouling unnecessarily,” said Miles. “Those are the ones we need to correct.”

The Spartans came out of half-time with surprising patience and good ball movement. SJS had slowed the Aztec offense in the first five minutes of the second-half, as Spartan forward Tibet Gorener got hot with three 3s leading to a three-point lead halfway into the second-half. Gorener finished with 15 points.

The Spartan centers in foul trouble for a good part of the game; essentially dwindling SJS’ inside presence. Adrama Diongue fouled out with 9:30 left with cohort William Humer with four fouls.

The Aztecs smelled blood and kept it coming inside.

With two minutes remaining, both teams actually picked up the intensity leading to a final exciting stretch that fell just short for San Jose.

Hitting the road

“In a situation like this, it really comes down to how do you handle frustration,” said Miles. “Do you let it suck the life out of you or do you use it to make your self stronger and more resilient.”

Losing track of days in the post-game presser, Miles is already up for Air Force this weekend - seemingly ready to continue the progression at Colorado Springs.

“We obviously know what we want to do with any frustration,” said Miles. “We make it so we’re stronger and better against Air Force on Saturday.”

Even at 0-3, there is no lack of heart with San Jose. But as it is said, there are no moral victories for these Spartans.

“It’s going to come together,” said Amey. “We work too hard as a team.”