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Colorado State 79 – San Diego State 73

January 26, 2015

Every once in awhile as a fan, you get a game that looks on paper. Two good teams bordering on Top 25 ranking, two good coaches, a sellout crowd and a national TV audience. Both teams riding winning streaks where they looked to be playing at a very high level. One team coming off their largest conference road win ever vs. the other coming off the largest margin on victory ever in a conference home game. The top offense in the conference vs. the top defense in the conference.

The kind of game that players love to play and the kind of game that as a long-time college basketball fan I love to attend.

Something had to give.

The outcome was in doubt until a missed San Diego State three-pointer was rebounded by Joe DeCiman who was fouled and calmly sank a pair of free throws for the final margin.

But how it got to that point was oh so magical!

The Rams began the game making everything from the perimeter. An early pair of fouls sent forward Stanton Kidd to the bench and an early technical on Coach Larry Eustachy boosted the Aztecs, but that didnt matter as they ran out to a 27-10 lead. Daniel Bejarano, Joe DeCiman, and JJ Avila each recorded multiple three-balls.

It was the kind of lead and start that would make weaker-minded teams fold. Can you say Nevada?

But Steve Fisher’s San Diego State squad didn’t build their reputation nationally by being that kind of team. They defend tenaciously, they pound the glass, and with a master tactician on the bench pushing a smaller lineup out on the floor, the Aztecs went on a 17-2 run that got them back into the game at 29-27. First it was sharpshooter Matt Shringley getting hot from the perimeter and then it was JJ Obrien and Malik Popescoring inside.

A late CSU run fueled by Gian Clavell pushed the lead back to 11 until a Shrigley 3-ball at the buzzer got the Aztecs back within single digits at 40-32.

The smaller line-up without a true center had given the Aztecs some hope and it was clear that they wouldnt go away without a fight.

And when the second half began, San Diego State quickly got the deficit down to 4 but then the Rams starting having their way again. Kidd had returned to the game after sitting most of the first half with foul issues and the combination of he and Avila were giving the Aztecs fits. The lead went back to double digits and stayed around 10.

Steve Fisher countered with his smaller lineup and the Aztecs fought their way back as O’Brien repeatedly backed down his defender from the left wing and Pope caught fire from the perimeter, making 4-4. The Rams continued to score mostly through Avila and Kidd but the often scoring-challenged Aztecs were scoring faster.

And when the Rams led 73-72 at the under 4 media TO it was lining up to be a fantastic finish.

A pair of missed free throws by O’Brien that would have pushed the Aztecs into the lead were countered by a pair of Kidd free throws. And somehow the Rams found a way to deny shots to both Shrigley and Pope, forcing Aqeel Quinn to make beat them and he wasnt up to the task.

When Avila penetrated into the paint and rattled in a short jumper the Rams had a 4-point lead. Solid defense forced a pair of missed three-balls by Quinn and the Rams victory was assured when Joe DeCiman rebounded a miss and followed with a pair of free throws.

In the end, it was more than a victory as the Rams moved their record to 5-2 in the MWC and remained within shouting distance of conference leaders Wyoming. They had scored an important Top 50 RPI win that will prove to be important to their NCAA post-season resume.

They had persevered against a quality opponent who had played very well.

And, most importantly, on a beautiful January evening in Fort Collins, they had honored the game by delivering a famous victory to the Moby faithful.

Other thoughts…

Thee two teams are led by two extraordinary coaching staffs. Its not just the quality but the way they play. No nonsense and physical. No tricks or flops to draw charges. No moving screens on offense to free guys up or shirt grabs to slow guys down defensively. Just hard, solid fundamentals. It made for an incredibly enjoyable game to watch.

The Rams have had some high-powered offensive games but this one was extraordinary in that it came against a San Diego State that was ranked 3rd nationally in defense. The Aztecs came into the game forcing turnovers on 22% of their defensive possessions and holding teams to .86 points per possession. Only twice all year had they given up over 1 point per possession (1.06 to BYU and 1.04 to Cincinnati). The Rams only turned the ball over on 8% of their possessions and scored at the rate of 1.31 points per possession. Nearly .5 points per possession better than what the Aztecs had given up year to date!

JJ Avila was a beast all night ending with a career-high 29 points on 12-16 shooting. When San Diego State went small, they had no answer for Avila as he repeatedly penetrated into the paint and scored at the rim. For some inexplicable reason the Rams forgot about JJ for about a 5-minute period and that allowed the Aztecs to storm back late. JJ O’Brien played very well last night for SDSU but the best JJ on the floor wore white.

SDSU’s Malik Pope was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school but he’s had leg injuries that had the Aztecs thinking they might have to redshirt him. They didnt and yesterday was his coming out party as he showed his athleticism around the rim, rising well above the masses on the offensive glass and delivering follow dunks. In the second half he showed a perimeter game that is rarely seen by someone who is 6’10”.

SDSU’s Matt Shrigley shushed the crowd after nailing the three-ball to end the half. It was a banked three. Pope had to turn to the crowd and hold his hands up every time he made a three. The two of them together shot an extraordinary 8-9 from beyond the arc. The Rams made 12 three-balls and never once mugged for the crowd. Because its hard to mug for the crowd when you’re sprinting to get back on defense. That’s the kind of behavior that I appreciate.

After the game, I approached Brian Dutcher, who is currently Steve Fisher’s lead assistant and the head coach in waiting when Fisher retires. I told him how much his team had impressed me on a night where the Rams were extraordinary. I told him I thought they’d probably run through the rest of the conference schedule without a loss if they played that way every night. He replied that the conference is tough and there are a lot of good teams that make it very difficult to win. I repeated my belief that if the Aztecs play like they did last night, they will win out. A lot of that is driven by the maturity of a guy like JJ O’Brien but it also comes from the addition of Malik Pope to the line-up. His presence opens up the floor for guys like Shrigley and totally transforms the Aztecs on the offensive end.

One final thought… CSU had a week to get ready for SDSU and they used their time well. They were especially prepared for a full-court press that can turn you over three times in a minute. I don’t think the Rams turned the ball over more than once or twice the entire game against the press. And they didnt just protect the ball, they attacked and scored numerous times at the rim. It is something that Eustachy teams usually do very well. And also, inside of 10 minutes Steve Fisher burned a TO after a free throw to set up a 1-3-1 zone defense that has been known to cause major problems to opponents. The Rams recognized it, patiently set up, and attacked it with Stanton Kidd popping out to nail a lightly contested three-ball from the elbow extended. Next time down the court, the Aztecs were back playing man-to-man. That was a mini-win for the Rams and would prove to be important as it forced the Aztecs to burn more energy defensively. Fatigue ultimately played a factor in those final four minutes as the Rams held the Aztecs to zero field goals and only 1 point.

Oops. My last thought… At halftime they introduced new football head coach Mike Bobo and honored the team. A nice video was shown and the crowd responded with a lot of noise and energy. It was good. And then at the under 16 TO in the second half it was time for the Kiss Cam. And there were former AD Jack Graham and his wife Ginger up on the video board smooching. It was nice to see them enjoying the game. And then to my surprise, the Kiss Cam camera found my wife and I. I tried to deliver a kiss for the ages. At my advanced age, its probably the best sex I’ll have in months.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2015 3:31 am

    You can never retire, Swoll!

  2. January 26, 2015 3:43 am

    But they didn’t pass the eye test. 🙂

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