The San Diego State men’s basketball team, forced to suit up for the play-in round of the Mountain West tournament for the first time ever, overcame a horrific first half to beat the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels 62-52 in overtime. It was a really exciting game in a “this shouldn’t be remotely this stressful” kind of way. It was a game that affirmed the old adage: Never question the heart of a six seed.
That’s not actually the adage, of course. Our esteemed colleague AttemptedChem mangled Rudy T.’s famous Heart of a Champion speech on purpose; the kind of wry artistic license one expects from a battle-tested Aztec fan of his caliber. Tomjanovich was the 2nd overall pick in the 1970 draft and a rookie on the last iteration of the San Diego Rockets, so the quote has a solid local connection. Did you know: the Rockets, the Clippers and the old bad Aztecs all played in that same crappy gym that’s still there, virtually unchanged since 1966? True story.
It can’t really be overstated how bad the first half of this basketball game went for the Tecs. Since the game was an internet-only broadcast, social media was an even more immediate sounding board for the tragedy that was unfolding. Zeigs took to psychoanalyzing the team based on their body language and it actually seemed fair. Aztecs Twitter fell into despair. I, too, viewed the events darkly and privately began to wonder if this was how the Fisher Era came to an end: in front of a tiny Thomas & Mack crowd on a Wednesday play-in game to the fallen Rebs. What ignominy, fitting snugly into the string of gut-punches the last few months have delivered for SDSU, San Diego, the world.
Oh it was real, and it was not magnificent. The basketball program was cratering on a livestream the same day the university president, like Old Sterky before him, announced he was leaving SDSU for a higher-paying job back East.
There were Aztec air balls. There were turnovers. There was a bricked dunk attempt, now an established trend. UNLV was running, dunking, smiling, the last-place Rebs laughing it up in front of their fans at our expense.
Steve Fisher and his staff pulled his team into the locker room at halftime. Fisher is famous for in-game adjustments but this 17-13 squad looked like they needed a soul transplant. Whatever buttons he pushed, however he convinced them to snap out of it, it worked.
The Rebels are bad, but they didn’t just go cold in the second half. The Aztecs played truly great defense, pressing and going on offensive runs while stifling the Rebs at the other end. The mood on the interwebs shifted upward.
D’Erryl Williams was inspired, hitting Valentine Izundu for two alley-oop assists. Jeremy Hemsley had a rough game overall but his inbounds steal and layup helped spark the second-half run. Malik Pope had a double-double and hit key baskets. Valentine Izundu put up eight points, five huge swats and made free throws. SDSU made 21 of 26 from the charity stripe, importantly and improbably.
It would have been a horrible, no good, very bad day had the Aztecs not found something within and pulled their season back from a sad dénouement. Maybe this is as far as they get. Even if so, in a difficult year, the team proved a point of character. Their adversity may have been self-inflicted but they stared it down nonetheless.
San Diego State plays the 3rd-seeded Boise State Broncos in the nightcap of the Thursday session at 8:30 PM on CBS Sports Network.