SAN DIEGO STATE'S SEASON TO REMEMBER : Despite That Poor Finish, Aztecs Came a Long Way

Times Staff Writer

Memories can be rather short, even at the end of a memorable season.

San Diego State, for example, was not expected to have much of a basketball season in 1984-85. However, the Aztecs are enjoying their best season as a Division 1 team with 21 wins and 7 losses.

The fact that two of those defeats came in the final two games of the regular season tempered some of the sense of accomplishment, and the Aztecs actually came away disappointed rather than elated.

And that is a testimony to how far this team has come.

"We lost some close games and we're kind of upset that we finished like we did," center Leonard Allen said. "Frankly, I thought we'd win even more games."

More?

SDSU won seven of eight Western Athletic Conference games at home and finished second in the WAC with an 11-5 record. As one of the top two teams in the conference, the Aztecs drew a bye into the semifinals of the WAC tournament. SDSU will play in El Paso on March 8.

The Aztecs won their first eight games this season, defeated BYU in Provo for the first time, and beat Texas El Paso and New Mexico in back-to-back games played before enthusiastic crowds of 8,843 and 6,642 fans in the San Diego Sports Arena. After those wins, the Aztecs were tied with the Miners for first place in the WAC with two conference games to play.

SDSU was to face eighth-place Hawaii at home and Colorado State on the road. UTEP had to face an inconsistent, but talented New Mexico team before 18,000 fans at the Pit and Colorado State in Fort Collins.

The Aztecs appeared to be in control.

People around town were actually excited about Aztec basketball. Players, coaches and fans were talking about winning the WAC and going to the NCAA tournament.

"None of us were in that predicament before, and I know I was a little uptight in the Colorado State game," guard Anthony Watson said.

Predicament? This should have been fun for a team which had far exceeded everyone's expectations.

The three-day stretch from Thursday to Saturday turned out to be a bust.

Watson, the team's leading scorer with a 17.2-point average, scored just 10 and 4 points, and the Aztecs lost to Hawaii, 69-68, and to Colorado State, 78-72.

"We were overlooking Hawaii and there was a lot of pressure on us to win at Colorado State," Allen said. "Once we knew UTEP won on Saturday afternoon, there was even more pressure on us to win."

The Aztecs committed 17 turnovers in each of the final two games, and did not play the type of basketball that had enabled them to win 21 games.

"There was no pressure on us for much of the season because we were the underdog," Allen said. "We play much better when we're loose."

The losses ended the Aztecs' hopes of winning the WAC championship. But . . .

"Those two losses at the end will not spoil a good year," Coach Smokey Gaines said. "This has been a really satisfying and fun season. Much more so than last year."

The Aztecs were coming off a 15-13 season and they had lost their best player, forward Michael Cage. Because they were on probation, the Aztecs were also limited to just one scholarship. Gaines recruited Creon Dorsey, a point guard who was unheard of anywhere but in Waco, Tex.

SDSU was picked to finish either fifth or sixth in the WAC, depending on whether you believed the poll by the coaches or the media.

When his players were running and shooting foul shots at five in the morning during preseason drills, Gaines talked about winning between 15 and 20 games. He said it depended on how well Dorsey played, and if the Aztecs could avoid serious injuries.

By the time the season opened against UC Irvine on Nov. 29, the Aztecs were quite confident.

"At that time, I told Smokey we'd go to the NCAA this season," Dorsey said. "I had known Andre (Ross) and Leonard--both players were also from Texas--and had seen Watson on the videos. After practicing with them, I knew we had a lot of talent."

Under Dorsey, the floor leader SDSU lacked last season, the Aztecs gave up using the low-post offense that was tailored to Cage.

With Dorsey running the show, the wealth was spread among the Aztec shooters. The ball no longer belonged to one player, and that enabled Watson, Kennedy, Ross and Allen to show what they could really do.

"From what I gathered, players got discouraged last year when they did their best and were not recognized," Dorsey said. "This year, they knew they would get the publicity."

It has been a team effort for the Aztecs this season, and Gaines has been responsible for keeping up the morale of his non-scorers and reserves as well as his slumping scorers.

"This is Smokey's best coaching job because he really has the team concept working," New Mexico Coach Gary Colson said. "The players don't care who scores."

Three Aztecs had scoring averages in double figures, and eight players averaged more than five points a game. Any number of Aztecs could take a key shot, but Watson was usually the man they went to in the clutch.

"Basically, I had the kind of year I hoped to," Watson said. "Scoring and winning is a great thing. It's no fun to score 20 points a game and lose. If you don't believe me, ask Mike (Michael Cage)."

Allen averaged 13.8 points and 7.9 rebounds, forward Michael Kennedy averaged 10.6 points and 4.8 rebounds and Ross averaged 9.4 points and 5 rebounds. Dorsey averaged 8.6 points and 5.6 assists, Jeff Konek came off the bench to average 5.7 points and forward John Martens, hampered by injuries, averaged 5.2 points.

Guard Bobby Owens averaged 5.1 points, and scored 16 points in the second half of the Aztecs' stirring 75-72 comeback win over Colorado State at the Sports Arena.

Throughout the season, Gaines said there wasn't much of a difference in the level of talent among his top eight or nine players.

"I knew before the season I'd have to substitute a lot more because we didn't have any superstars," Gaines said.

As it turned out, the Aztecs' depth contributed to many of their victories.

Having a strong bench enabled Gaines to employ a three-guard offense when they were pressed or needed to come from behind. Konek and Owens provided the Aztecs with instant offense on many occasions.

Gaines also used sophomore center Gerald Murray, the most physical player on the team, alongside Allen when SDSU needed to counter a big and physical front line.

When Martens underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Dec. 26, Gaines inserted Ross into the starting lineup. At the time of his operation, the injury-plagued Martens was starting and averaging 8.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists.

He hasn't been the same since, and the team has taken on a different look since he left the starting lineup.

"We were playing pretty good (they were 7-0) when we had John," Gaines said. "He was probably our best inside player in terms of movement, and it kind of hurt us when he got hurt. His timing is still not back."

The inconsistency of his starters was another reason Gaines was forced to go to his bench.

"We didn't seem to get up for the easy games, and then we'd play mediocre against teams with 5-19 records," Dorsey said.

When Kennedy had a good game, Ross usually did not. And vice versa. Co-captains Watson and Allen often followed great games with poor ones.

"Individually, the season was kind of disappointing," Allen said. "If I had contributed more, I think we could have won some of the games we lost."

Said Watson: "Next year, I'll be able to take everything I accomplished this year and use it to my advantage. I have to learn to play against teams that play a box-and-one on me. Next year, I'll have more of an insight into what occurs during a game."

Next season actually begins for SDSU on March 8 in the WAC tournament in El Paso.

At that time, the Aztecs will have another chance to turn that special season into that championship season.

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