Aztecs aim to keep Air Force grounded on senior night

Aztecs senior Malik Pope takes the court against Fresno State. Photo Credit: GoAztecs.com (Ernie Anderson)

The San Diego State men’s basketball team has had its ups and downs this season. After being selected to win the Mountain West conference in the preseason, the Aztecs find themselves fighting for a sixth place finish in the conference alongside Fresno State. The record does not reflect the fight and passion Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher and his squad have put in, as most of the losses were by 10 points or less.

The Scarlet and Black have an opportunity to avenge one of those losses as Air Force travels to Viejas arena for the final home game of the season on Thursday night. The last time these two teams squared off, Air Force walked away with a 60-57 nail-biting win, leaving the Aztecs with a frustrating trip home.

There’s no doubt that this game will a lot of hype around it. It’s not only a revenge game and the last home game, but it’s also senior night in San Diego. Dakarai Allen, Matt Shrigley, D’Erryl Williams, and Valentine Izundu will all be honored pre-game in the starting lineup alongside Malik Pope. Allen, Shrigley and Williams started their SDSU careers during the 2013-14 campaign.

Air Force comes into this game boasting an offense that averages nearly 75 points per game, while the Aztecs average just 69 points per game. The strong suit of this SDSU team has and always will be defense, thanks to the program and philosophy of coach Fisher.

Beneath Fisher’s tutelage, SDSU has allowed just 63 points per game, a tremendous feat in Division I basketball.

Keys to the game for SDSU will be defensive pressure, handling the ball, and keeping the foot on the gas in the second half. The Aztecs have averaged at least a 10-point lead in each of their conference losses this season, and it has been the primary concern among Scarlett and Black fans.
Tipoff is at 7 p.m. at Viejas arena Thursday night. Coverage will be provided live via Twitter from @KCRsports.

SDSU wins big against Nevada, 70-56

The University of Nevada visited Viejas Arena on Sunday flaunting a record of 19-5 (8-3 in the conference), which had them tied for first place in the Mountain West.
San Diego State men’s basketball, on the other hand, sat at 13-10 (5-6 in the conference), an abysmal record compared to what Aztec fans have seen in recent years. Coming off a their first loss to San Jose State University since 1999, SDSU was in desperate need of a morale boost.
However, all those in attendance for Sunday’s affair witnessed the Aztecs return to their dominant ways.
The Scarlet and Black flashed energy on defense, playing with the passion and pride SDSU supporters have longed for all season. They came into the game with a clear chip on their shoulder against the top team in the conference, looking the part of a team with something to prove.
Junior forward Malik Pope started off hot for the Aztecs, converting three of his first four shots from the field, including a three-pointer.
Senior guard Dakarai Allen followed suit with two-handed jam to put the crowd on their feet.
Junior guard Trey Kell later watched a historic two-point field goal find the bottom of the net, as he became the 31st player in school history to reach 1,000 career points.
Nevada chipped away at SDSU’s lead late in the second half. Senior forward Matt Shrigley, however, silenced their momentum with seven points in the final two minutes, forcing the Wolf Pack to finish the second half down 42-28 with their tail between their legs.
The Wolf Pack never left the doghouse.
SDSU’s sophomore forward Zylan Cheatham kept the Aztecs’ energy levels up with a few huge plays, including two monstrous dunks and an emphatic block. He finished the contest with just four points, but his strong defense and contagious energy left a positive impact that fell far beyond the box score.
Following Cheatham’s lead, the Aztecs nursed a comfortable lead through the remainder of the second half behind Kell’s team-high 17 points and sophomore guard Jeremy Hemsley’s 15 points.
Defensively, the Aztecs were at their best against Nevada’s leading scorer, senior guard Marcus Marshall. Though he entered the contest averaging 20.1 points per game, Marshall was held to just four points on 1-10 shooting.
Overall, this was a great win for Aztec basketball, beating first place Nevada by 14 points and gaining some of that swagger back. Now, they need to ride this momentum into their next game against Utah State on Wednesday.

Rams batter Aztecs’ shield in the closing minutes, defeat SDSU 78-77

San Diego State men’s basketball fell just short of the mark, as Colorado State University battled back from a 13-point deficit in the second half to beat the Aztecs, 78-77.

CSU senior guard Gian Clavell was the man responsible for the Rams’ game-winning shot, putting the game on ice with a layup with just 3.8 seconds left in the contest.

“Once I saw [SDSU junior forward Malik] Pope kind of reach in, I pulled it up and it went off the backboard,” Clavell said. “Thankfully it went in.”

The Aztecs’ student section wasn’t thankful of Clavell, as the Scarlet and Black faithful dialed their chanting efforts towards him all night. Unfortunately for The Show, their chants only seemed to fuel Clavell’s scoring frenzy.

Clavell’s layup pushed his point total to a career-high 37 points on 14-23 shooting from the floor.

The Aztecs, however, dominated the first half of Saturday’s affair with momentous dunks from both Pope and senior center Valentine Izundu. The two’s efforts helped SDSU build a 10-point lead at halftime.

The Rams, of course, bucked back.

A barrage of three-pointers fueled CSU’s comeback efforts, as the team shot an outstanding 87.5 percent (7-8) from downtown in the second half. With that, the Rams finished the day shooting 55.6 percent (10-18) from behind the arc, doubling the Aztecs’ measly 27.3 percent three-point percentage.

Pope did his best to keep SDSU’s offense afloat, as he led the team in scoring with 19 points. He also picked up a team-high seven rebounds, filling the void of injured sophomore forward Zylan Cheathum.

“Missing Zylan is a big piece, so of course I’ll have to step my game up on rebounding and all the ways that he helps this team,” Pope said. “But we all did that. All five of us. Everyone else on the court, it wasn’t just me. We just had to pick up the slack [in the things] he was really good at. [But we’re] just waiting. Just waiting, hoping he gets back soon.”

Cheathum was a late scratch from the lineup due to a “stress reaction” in his foot. His status will remain day to day.

SDSU’s second half collapse against CSU shares similarities to the team’s 60-57 loss to Air Force on Tuesday. Both games featured an Aztec team incapable of maintaining a lead in the closing minutes.

Though SDSU was able to crash the offensive boards late in the contest, they simply couldn’t push their shots through the bottom of the net in the clutch moments of the game.

Additionally, the Aztecs’ offense left a lot of points off the board because of missed free throws, as the team shot just 67.8 percent (19-28) from the line. Pope went as far as to completely miss the basket on one of the team’s final free throws, one of many SDSU miscues late in the game.

Despite the mistakes, SDSU head coach Steve Fisher believes his team did everything necessary to win the game.

“When you have five turn overs, score 77 points, get to the free throw line 28 times and they are 14, you should win the game,” Fisher said. “And we didn’t.”

The loss adds to the Aztecs’ current downward spiral, as they have now fallen to 11-9 overall and 3-5 in conference play.

Fisher will look to right the ship before the Aztecs’ next home affair against the University of Wyoming on Tuesday, Jan. 31.

Thumbnail/Featured Image: Jan. 28, 2017; San Diego, CA, USA; Colorado State Rams guard Gian Clavell (3) is defended by San Diego State Aztecs guard Jeremy Hemsley (42) as he shoots. Credit: Jake Roth, USA TODAY Sports