Until Saturday night, the San Diego State basketball team and its vaunted defense had allowed just three of its opponents to score more than 60 points in a game. The three teams that were able to break 60?
BYU, who leads the country in scoring at 86.5 points per game, needed two overtimes to score 87 against the Aztecs.
Next was then-No. 3 Arizona, who barely squeaked out 61 points in the championship game of the Maui Invitational tournament.
And finally was Cincinnati, who also needed extra time to score 71 in a home win over the Aztecs in mid-December.
Outside of those three, no Aztecs opponent has reached the 60-point plateau, and eight haven’t reached 50 points.
So as Colorado State prepared to face the No. 3 scoring defense in the entire nation Saturday night at Moby Arena, one would assume that the Rams might have some offensive trouble against the team that is just ahead of Wyoming (who the Rams scored just 54 points against) in scoring defense nationally. One might also think it tough to find open looks against a team that only allows opponents to shoot 37.2 percent from the field and forces almost 15 turnovers per game with its manic full-court pressure.
Well, one would be wrong.
Led by what CSU head coach Larry Eustachy called an “attacking” offensive philosophy, Colorado State turned the ball over just five times while dishing out 15 assists and hitting 12 of 21 3-pointers en route to a 79-73 victory over the Aztecs in front of a deafening capacity crowd of 8,745 at Moby Arena.
“We had a philosophy about San Diego State that the teams who play them kind of try to break their pressure and then go, ‘Whew,”’ Eustachy said. “But we didn’t throw it away as opposed to attacking the basket with numbers. J.J. (Avila) took it to heart in the second half, and just dropped his head and went right to the rim and busted through their pressure, and I think that was the key.”
And attack is exactly what the Rams did.
Instead of slowing down to the San Diego State’s turtle-like pace, CSU went right at the Aztecs, opening the game with an impressive barrage of 3-point shooting while jumping out to a 27-10 lead on a team considered to be the class of the Mountain West. Unlike many of the teams the Aztecs have faced, CSU didn’t succumb to SDSU’s pressure, instead taking advantage of poor closeouts and defenders who were late on their rotations.
“We knew what they did, running and jumping (at the ball),” Daniel Bejarano said. “We just had to be strong and the key was just not to turn over the ball. That (defense) is how they get it (their offense) going but we did a terrific job.”
Even when the Aztecs roared back from multiple double-digit deficits, instead of playing conservatively and hoping to avoid any costly mistakes, CSU continued to attack SDSU inside and out, negating shot blocking centers Angelo Chol and Skylar Spencer. At the center of that offensive attack was Avila, who scored on jump hooks, reverse layups, free throws, runners and 3-pointers. Overall, the senior forward from McAllen, Texas totaled 29 points on an impressive 12-for-16 shooting. Avila’s effectiveness inside also opened up looks for Daniel Bejarano, Joe De Ciman and Stanton Kidd, who combined for 36 points.
Though they cooled down from behind the arc in the second half, shooting 4-for-10 after opening the game hitting eight of their first 11, CSU took their attack right at the Aztecs’ interior, scoring 12 points in the paint during the second frame while connecting on 13 of 16 free throws. Their foul shooting, along with a few timely buckets from Avila and Co., was just enough to give the Rams their fourth-straight win after dropping two in a row to open Mountain West play.
“That Wyoming game, we weren’t together and we lost that game, and we knew exactly why we lost that game,” Avila said. “It’s just been on to the next one and we’ve been so close since that Wyoming game and it’s all paying off. This was a big game but we’ve got a bigger one on Tuesday so we’ve got to forget about this and come to practice tomorrow.
After Saturday night, CSU is now in the midst of a logjam at second place in the Mountain West along with the Aztecs, New Mexico and Fresno State.
“We knew what was on the line,” Bejarano said of the matchup with the Aztecs, who came into tonight’s game in first place in the league. “We try not to look at that stuff and just play ball. We try not to get ahead, if San Diego State is coming in here then we have to handle business and that’s what we tried to do.”
The Pope has spoken.
Collegian Sports Editor Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.