Lahaina Civic Center
Coming into this years Maui Invitational the expectations were high and the stakes matched. San Diego State excited to make their first appearance since 2018 were headed into a stacked bracket this year with power 5 national brands all around them.
The expectations were that coming out of the week a possible Top-10 ranking would be attainable. The reality was that there is still much more work to be done for that kind of result.
Wednesday evening the Aztecs looked to bounce back from suffering a devastating loss to a much more physical Arizona the night before. What they found instead was perhaps even more shocking.
After holding the lead over coach Eric Musselman’s Arkansas Razorbacks for most of the game and as large of a lead as 11 points, the jammed packed Lahaina Civic Center witnessed the Aztecs lose grip of their lead and subsequently lose in overtime.
In the first half after some jockeying for position back & forth, this game was clear to have tons of highlights with an exciting flow to it. The length and athleticism of Arkansas made for a very intriguing matchup that the Aztecs could run with.
SDSU took control behind an 11-0 scoring run that kept Arkansas scoreless for over 4 minutes. Lamont Butler’s 9 first half points and Matt Bradley’s aggressive scoring was fueled by a smothering SDSU defense causing opportunities for buckets.
The Razorbacks many turnovers sent them into the half down by 9 points and badly needed to regroup with a different energy. And that’s just what they did. A 12-4 run that lasted over 5 minutes got Arkansas back within 5 points and kept their fans into it.
One factor coming into this season was the return of Nathan Mensah. Playing with unfinished business from last year was a big focus on this season. His big presence has been key in the blueprint of so many tough defensive Aztecs teams.
The Aztecs were able to take command of the game despite Mensah catching his first two fouls early in the game and being forced to sit much of the first half. But in the second half, when he caught his 5th and final foul with the Aztecs holding onto just a 2 point lead and under 4 minutes left to play, the dynamic of the game shifted for good.
Coffee Is For Closers
Arkansas was able to muscle up on the boards once Mensah was out especially on the offensive glass and took their first lead since early in the 1st half when they went up two just mere seconds after Mensah’s departure.
Despite this unfortunate factor in the game the Aztecs thought they had a closed lid on the game after a beautiful Matt Bradley reverse layup and two Adam Seiko free throws.
But such was not the case. Despite the Aztecs being up four points with under a minute left, a couple errors left room for Arkansas to force themselves back into the game.
Not much explanation has been given for Lamont Butler’s foul on a Razorback player being up 4 points. There may have been confusion as to being up only 3 points instead.
Either way the turnover on the ensuing inbounds play and refusal to call a timeout by neither he or coach Dutcher was another error in judgement by this Aztecs team.
Shades of last year and the Creighton debacle began swirling around this game and with Mensah out, Kamani Johnson was able to tie the game when he got the putback over the SDSU defense and send the game into overtime.
And in overtime the piggies got it done. Too much hero ball, not enough ball movement and a crucial Matt Bradley contested layup at the rim missed the mark, much to his own dejection. Final score Arkansas 78 SDSU 74.
The Aztecs would end the tournament 1-2 and unsure of advancing any on their #17 ranking. After a tough result two nights in a row, one has to ask how this team will bounce back after losing grip on much more than what they were able to bring home.
“We can get better from here.” Said a surprisingly positive Coach Brian Dutcher.
“We obviously competed hard. We learned a lot about our team that we’re tough enough to play with power five schools and we have to use these moments to learn and grow as a team.”
Noting Arkansas’ 38 free throws to SDSU’s 23 was a point of emphasis for Dutcher in the post game presser. An amount rarely seen by he and his staff in college basketball.
“I don’t remember the last time we gave up 38 free throws to anybody. We’ve got to do a better job defending people.”
When asked how his team can specifically improve from this tournament experience, Coach Dutcher had the clear remedy. “Tighten up our offensive efficiency. Determine what’s a good shot, what’s a hard shot and still be aggressive not having them afraid to make plays”
SDSU was led by Matt Bradley’s 23 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals. Darrion Trammell would follow with 13 points and Keshad Johnson with 10.
Arkansas was led by Trevon Brazile’s 20 points and 9 rebounds off the bench, Ricky Council with 19, and Anthony Black with 15.
Video surfaced of several SDSU fans and a mix of both coaching staff tussling around on the court in the post game handshake line. It is unclear as to what exactly all the uproar was about.
Rumors circling around social media detailed of Arkansas Head Coach Eric Mussleman provoking an SDSU player with a hand gesture of an “L” for loser. Some others went as far to have said there was a push by Musselman.
When asked about the post game line scuffle, Dutcher wasn’t aware of any.
“I don’t know, I was already through it. I just tell my kids you represent yourself first, your family second, and this university third don’t do anything to embarrass any of us. I think they do a good job upholding that. They represent themselves with a lot of class.”