It’s been a rough couple of days to be a San Diego sports fan, as the community continues to sift through the rubble left behind by its departed NFL franchise. Aztec Nation and Chargers Nation were never perfectly overlapping circles, mind you, (disclosure: I didn’t grow up here and never gave a Spanos’s ass about the franchise) but plenty of people cared a lot about both.
Indeed, it was easy to get that impression about the majority of the 8,000 or so fans that mostly filled Viejas Arena on Saturday night for the first major sporting event in San Diego A.C. The fact that this game fell while SDSU’s non-local students were away on winter break made this a more local crowd than most. And, indeed, the arena seemed pretty somber early on.
These people really needed a pleasant diversion. They needed a reminder that sportsball need not always be greed and arrogance and corporate welfare extortion schemes. They needed something to actually be hopeful about.
The Aztecs hoops team delivered.
SDSU demolished Utah State 74-55 in easily the most enjoyable game at Viejas this season. It wasn’t the win, necessarily, that provided the glimmer of hope; The Aggies (8-9) are one of the lesser teams in a decidedly lesser league. It was more the way SDSU looked with Malik Pope back in the fold for the first time in weeks.
They looked more … more like the team we thought we were getting – long and athletic and with lots of ways to beat you. They looked like a team that you could imagine winning three games in three days in Vegas and then upsetting a 5 seed in March Madness.
Pope’s stat line (9 points, 5 rebounds in 23 minutes) was solid, though it doesn’t quite jump off the page at first glance. What was hard to miss – provided you watched in person or on the ESPN stream – was how much more dynamic the Aztecs look with Pope on the floor.
Pope entered the game for the first time five minutes in, receiving a nice extended ovation – a heartening gesture from the fans considering the way he was lobbed under the No. 11 MTS bus by the local media when he didn’t play through his knee injury. He helped turn a 12-11 lead into a 28-15 advantage. After the Aggies went on a run to pull closer, Pope was re-inserted and immediately drained two of his graceful, high-arcing jumpers to stamp out the momentum.
After halftime, with the Aztecs up seven, Pope rejoined the first team. The lineup of Jeremy Hemsley, Trey Kell, Dakarai Allen, Pope and Zylan Cheatham proceeded to run Utah State out of the building. By the time Pope left the floor again, the lead was 20.
In all, SDSU outscored the Aggies 49-21 during Pope’s 23 minutes.
It’s easy to see why. Pope isn’t afraid to shoot over a zone, which is what keyed the Aggies first-half run to begin with. He gives a defense a dangerous guy they have to account for, creating room for the other scorers to operate. Lo and behold, Hemsley and Kell weren’t jacking up bad shots, or dribbling into a turnover late in the shot clock. Instead, the Aztecs shot 57 percent as a team.
This performance could be an anomaly (the 57 percent thing sure as hell is). We’ve been suckered into believing in this squad before and we’ll learn very soon if this was merely a mirage. The Aztecs travel to UNLV on Tuesday night, looking to win a road game for the first time in 10 months. Seems like something they should probably get around to doing!
But tonight, with Pope back, they certainly passed the eye test for the first time in a while.
And they offered a glimmer of hope to a city that could use one.