In what turned into a knockdown, drag-out brawl Wednesday night at Moby Arena, the Colorado State men’s basketball team struggled to find a rhythm all game and eventually fell to No. 19 San Diego State 71-61 in the Mountain West opener for both teams. Despite a career-high 22 points from junior guard Daniel Bejarano the Rams (9-5, 0-1 MW) struggled with turnovers for the first time all season and were outscored 40-16 in the paint by a much longer, more athletic Aztecs squad.
In a first half plagued by turnovers, with both teams combining for 17, San Diego State (11-1, 1-0 MW) used a full-court press to frustrate CSU’s guards and force 9 turnovers, one more than their season average. Led by 12 points from standout forward JJ Avila, the Rams were able to cut the deficit to two before the Aztecs went on a 7-0 run to close out the half punctuated by Xavier Thames’ jumper with two seconds left.
But after his strong first-half performance, Avila struggled with foul trouble throughout the second frame and eventually fouled out with 15 points at the 3:54 mark. After the game, head coach Larry Eustachy praised Avila’s effort while playing through a back injury he suffered in practice earlier this week.
“He’s in pretty bad shape, that is what’s really too bad is that he put up such a gallant effort and we came up a little short in winning the game,” Eustachy said.
However, it was more of the same in the second half as CSU struggled at times with the Aztecs’ pressure and turned the ball over eight more times. San Diego State capitalized, turning those miscues into points on the other end. But maybe the Rams biggest struggle came on the defensive glass, in particular on missed free throws. SDSU shot only 57% from the free-throw line but came down with six offensive rebounds and turned those into 12 more second-chance points.
“Whenever we scored they came back with an answer,” Bejarano said. “They just got the boards that we should have gotten.”
Even with his team’s struggles, Eustachy again came away very impressed by the effort of his young team. With only four returning players from a season ago, CSU hung with the more talented Aztecs and gave them all they could handle in front of an announced crowd of 4,059.
“I’m extremely proud of our staff and our players with what we’ve been able to do,” Eustachy said. “We’re building a nice base during this rebuilding process and we just haven’t gotten over the hump against a top-20 team yet but I think we’ll get there before this year is said and done.”
CSU’s upcoming schedule gets no easier as the Rams travel to Albuquerque to take on pre-season favorite New Mexico Saturday afternoon in one of the loudest venues in college basketball, The Pit. The Lobos (9-3) are led by pre-season All Mountain-West picks Kendall Williams, Cameron Bairstow, and Alex Kirk. Saturday’s game will be televised nationally on ESPNU.
Men’s basketball beat reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @kpopecollegian.