J.J. Avila would not be denied as he led the Colorado State men’s basketball team to a 79-73 win over San Diego State (15-5, 5-2 MW) in front of a sold-out crowd Saturday night at Moby Arena.
The senior forward helped the Rams (18-2, 5-2 MW) get out to a hot start against one of the best defensive teams in the country. Then it was the driving floater he cashed in with 17 seconds left and the shot clock running down that sealed the deal in an improbably high-scoring game. Avila finished with 29 points on 12-for-16 shooting.
“I was just trying to be patient,” Avila said. “Work that clock down, get in the post and see what I can do.”
“He’s a different guy,” CSU head coach Larry Eustachy added. “I don’t know who is better in the league.”
CSU jumped out to a 6-0 lead on 3-pointers by Avila and Daniel Bejarano in what would be a sign of things to come. The Rams connected on their first six 3-pointers of the night to push their lead to as high as 25-8 at one point before a cold streak allowed the Aztecs to climb back into the game. After scoring 25 points in the first eight minutes, the Rams went cold and scored just two points in the next eight.
SDSU went on a 14-0 run led by Malik Pope and the shooting of Matt Shrigley to cut CSU’s lead down to 29-27 late in the first half. Bejarano was finally able to stifle the run a bit and a huge 4-point play by Gian Clavell helped the Rams carry a 40-32 lead into halftime.
The second half saw another hot start for CSU with Bejarano and Avila once again leading the way. The Aztecs would not go away though as Pope and J.J. O’Brien consistently got enough buckets to keep up with the Rams scoring. Pope finished with 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting, including 4-for-4 from behind the arc, and pulled down seven rebounds.
“We said before the game that this guy (Pope) is going to be a problem,” Eustachy said. “He’s special but I mean, 9-for-11? I think Shrigley was 6-of-7. We seem to fix everybody’s shooting problems.”
A 3-pointer from Shrigley cut the lead to 73-72 with about four minutes to play but that was as close as the Aztecs would come in a game in which they trailed for nearly the entire 40 minutes. Stanton Kidd was fouled on a drive and knocked down both free throws to put the Rams up 75-72 with just 2:03 remaining. SDSU guard Aqeel Quinn then missed the second half of a one-and-one which set the stage for Avila to ice things late.
The senior duo of Bejarano and Avila carried the Rams for much of the contest but it was the aggression of fellow senior Stanton Kidd that made all the difference. After sitting out most of the first half with foul trouble, the Baltimore native scored all of his 14 points in the second frame. He connected on two 3-pointers while also going 8-for-10 from the free throw line, and pulled down some big rebounds late.
“I just settled down and let the game come to me,” Kidd said. “Sat out most of the first half but these guys kept me in it … they got me the ball in places I could score from and we just started getting stops together.”
On paper, 79 points should have been enough to beat the Aztecs handily, but instead SDSU thrived offensively despite the sold-out crowd at a raucous Moby Arena. In addition to Pope’s career night, three other Aztecs scored in double figures (Shrigley with 16, O’Brien with 14, Quinn with 10). Whenever CSU appeared to be pulling away, SDSU was able to hit a big shot to bring them back in it. However, the Rams were able to answer with just enough clutch shots of their own to grab their biggest win of the season.
“We just battled,” Bejarano said. “We just stepped up, and we won.”
Colorado State now moves into a tie for second place in the Mountain West alongside the Aztecs. The Rams are on the road Tuesday to take on Boise State at 9 p.m. MT.
Collegian Sports Reporter Emmett McCarthy can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @emccarthy22.