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Aztecs nearly set record in romp over Air Force

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 1/23/2021 Mark Zeigler
a group of men playing a game on the court: On a night when they held Air Force to 16 first-half points, Aztecs Nathan Mensah (31) and Terrell Gomez (3) defend against CJ Haut. (Nicholas Arseniak / Air Force photo) © Provided by San Diego Union Tribune On a night when they held Air Force to 16 first-half points, Aztecs Nathan Mensah (31) and Terrell Gomez (3) defend against CJ Haut. (Nicholas Arseniak / Air Force photo)

San Diego State had a new starting lineup and a playbook full of new offensive sets against Air Force’s matchup zone.

Here’s how the Aztecs opened the game: turnover, turnover, turnover, turnover.

But, no, it wasn’t one of those nights at 7,081 feet.

The Aztecs quickly snapped out of it, stopped trying to do too much and just played basketball, which is all you need to do against a dreadful Air Force Academy team that is rebuilding under new, old coach Joe Scott. The result was a 98-61 win Friday night at Clune Arena that ended a two-game losing streak and provided a stark contrast between the upper and lower tiers of the Mountain West.

It took a last-second 3 to save the Falcons from becoming SDSU’s most lopsided conference victim. The record still remains 39 points against Wyoming in 2011, although that was at sold-out Viejas Arena with the student section chanting “Show no mercy.”

Or put it this way: If this was a high school game, they would have instituted the mercy rule and played the second half with a running clock (yes, even during free throws).

The Falcons actually led this game, hard as that might be to believe. A three-point play by Nikc Jackson made it 6-5 with 14:16 left in the first half.

The lead lasted for exactly 23 seconds, until grad transfer Terrell Gomez — starting for the first time as an Aztec but the 98th time in his career — drained a 3.

Six minutes later, it was 27-6.

Then 32-8.

Then 46-11.

Halftime score: 52-16 (and only because A.J. Walker somehow made a wild floater in a tangle of bodies at the buzzer).

With Matt Mitchell missing his second straight game with a hyperextended right knee, and following consecutive losses for the first time in 48 games, coach Brian Dutcher figured it was as good a time as any to shake up the starting lineup — something he and predecessor Steve Fisher almost never do.

In went Gomez. In went freshman guard Lamont Butler, coming off a 13-point, five-steal performance at Utah State last Saturday on a national CBS telecast. They joined regulars Trey Pulliam, Jordan Schakel and Nathan Mensah while Adam Seiko and Aguek Arop, who both started Saturday, came off the bench.

It didn’t work for the opening 2½ minutes. Butler traveled twice. Gomez traveled once.

It worked for the next 30 minutes.

Schakel led the Aztecs (10-4, 4-3) with 18 points. Seiko and Arop responded to coming off the bench with 14 points each on a combined 10 of 12 shooting. Nathan Mensah managed the altitude better with Dutcher using him in short stints, finishing with 13 points and seven rebounds in 16 minutes.

Freshman Keith Dinwiddie Jr. got his first minutes in a month and had 13 points. Even walk-on Cade Alger scored for the first time in an Aztecs uniform, on a dunk, foul and free throw.

It’s difficult to assess how much is improvement by an Aztecs offense that has struggled at times this season, and how much is an Air Force team that returned only one starter. Like most cases, it was probably a combination of both.

The Aztecs looked rejuvenated, refreshed, resilient, resplendent. The Falcons (4-9, 2-7) looked nothing like the unit that won at Nevada or was within a point at first-place Boise State inside seven minutes to go.

What kind of night was it for Scott?

Keaton Van Soelen, his best big, got his second foul with 12:19 left in the first half. Before Scott could sub him out, he got a third. Scott took him out briefly but, figuring he didn’t have many other viable options on his undersized roster, put him back in. With 9:18 left, he got his fourth.

Van Soelen started the second half. Twenty seconds later, he fouled out.

The statistics were staggering in their inequality.

SDSU took 27 shots and made 70.4 percent of them. Air Force managed just 17 shots and made 35.3 percent of them.

Free throws were 14-3. Rebounds were 16-6. Points off turnovers were 25-2 (thanks to 15 Falcons miscues in the opening 20 minutes). Bench scoring was 28-5. Points in the paint were 22-6. Fast break points.

All that, just in the first half.

The 52-16 halftime margin was the third largest in Mountain West history, and the largest by a road team. Then the Aztecs pushed the lead into the 40s. Then Dinwiddie drained a 3 from Denver to push it into the 50s.

The lead got as high as 52 before Dutcher decided to rest his regulars for Sunday night’s rematch, and the Falcons took advantage of the benevolence to outscore the Aztecs 30-15 over the closing nine minutes.

That may return dividends on Sunday with fresher legs, but the sloppy finish likely cost the Aztecs precious spots in the computer metrics that input an entire game’s stats no matter how lopsided and that the NCAA Tournament selection committee leans on to determine at-large berths.

New Mexico games in Lubbock

Twelve days before they play, the Aztecs finally learned the location of their two games against New Mexico: Lubbock, Texas.

Even more bizarrely, the Feb. 3 game is scheduled to tip at 10 p.m. CST (8 p.m. PST) on Fox Sports 1. The Feb. 5 game is an hour earlier on CBS Sports Network.

The Lobos recently received approval to practice in Albuquerque, but state regulations still prohibit them from playing games. They spent the first part of the season practicing and playing at Lubbock Christian University, then relocated to St. George, Utah, for two weeks and five games.

There was an attempt to play the Feb. 3 and 5 games at Viejas Arena, since the Lobos were already in California for a pair of games next week at Fresno State. SDSU, sources said, offered to pay some of New Mexico’s expenses since it would be saving money by not booking flights to Lubbock on short notice.

New Mexico ultimately declined, either because it wanted to return to Albuquerque for a few days to practice or because other coaches in the conference complained about the Aztecs getting an additional two home games. Already, the Aztecs had two games earlier this month at UNLV wiped out by COVID-19 positives and it remains unclear whether they’ll be rescheduled.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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