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SDSU’s Slide Is Now Four Games Long : New Mexico Uses Press Early to Build 23-4 Lead on Way to Victory

Times Staff Writer

After swooping into San Diego Friday afternoon after an all-night flight from Honolulu and swooping out Saturday with an 83-76 victory over San Diego State, maybe New Mexico basketball Coach Dave Bliss had the best perspective on what has gone wrong with Aztecs.

Nobody could accuse Bliss, who is also in his first year as a coach in the Western Athletic Conference, of being too close to the situation.

“I know they have lost a couple of games, but they are on the verge of putting it all together,” Bliss said. “They have the parts. They are just getting comfortable with each other. Sometimes it comes and it goes to everybody’s program during the season. That’s why you have ups and downs.”

No question which way the Aztecs are headed lately. The loss to the Lobos, in front of 3,650 at the San Diego Sports Arena, stretched the season’s longest losing streak to four, matching their longest losing streak in 2 seasons under Coach Jim Brandenburg.

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After opening their WAC schedule with home victories over Colorado State and Air Force 2 weeks ago, the Aztecs have lost to Brigham Young and Utah on the road and to Texas El Paso and New Mexico at home. The loss dropped SDSU to .500 (8-8) for the first time in a month.

But while Bliss could be detached in his analysis of the Aztecs’ slump, Brandenburg couldn’t help but let some frustration show in his post-game report.

“It’s disappointing in a lot of ways,” Brandenburg said. “We were playing so well just 2 weeks ago, and here we are behind an 8-ball. We have got to get ourselves going. We’re not playing very well.”

That was clear from the tap. The Lobos opened in a press that forced the Aztecs into turnovers on their first three possessions and helped key a 6-0 start that ballooned to a 23-4 bulge in the first 8 minutes.

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The Aztecs did rally to within 48-44 with 13:46 left to play, with the help of guard Michael Best, who scored all of his career-high 24 points in the second half. But the Lobos (10-5, 5-1 in WAC) were able to hold on to secure only their second victory in 12 tries against the Aztecs in San Diego and their first in five attempts after returning from a game at Hawaii.

“This was survival,” Bliss said. “We really got tired down the stretch. This was like two heavyweights going toe to toe.

“But Best could have played another couple of hours the way he was hitting those 3-pointers. The problem he had earlier was he was shooting from too close.”

After missing his three first-half attempts, Best made 10 of 13 shots in the second half, missing only 3 of his 7 attempts from 3-point range. Best, a junior transfer from Clemson, also made 6 of his 7 assists and 5 of his 6 steals in the second half.

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But as good as he was, the Lobos were able to counter with sophomore guard Rob Robbins, who had 18 of his team-high 22 points and did not miss a shot in the second half. Robbins was perfect on five field-goal attempts, including four 3-pointers, and made his four free throws. That after a first half in which was 2 for 7 from the field, 0 for 2 from 3-point range.

“Rob has a shooter’s mentality in that he is very good at shooting even if he misses the first one,” Bliss said. “You don’t want shy people out there.”

Robbins said his early problem had more to do with waking up than warming up. The Lobos took an overnight flight after an 81-63 victory at Hawaii Thursday night and did not arrive in San Diego until midday Friday.

“We were a little tired,” Robbins said. “That plane ride killed us. Riding all night, I don’t think any of us could get any sleep.”

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Afraid that it could result in a sluggish start for his team, Bliss decided to open the game with the press.

“I was trying to get us, energy-wise, right into the game,” Bliss said. “The normal thought would be to conserve your energy because you’re so tired, and we really were tired at the end. But we were well served to get into the press early.”

It had just the desired effect, getting the Lobos rolling and catching the Aztecs momentarily off guard. Brandenburg described it as “pester press,” one designed more to annoy than force turnovers.

“How we got into problems there, I do not know,” Brandenburg said. “We didn’t come out the with intensity we need.”

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It was the second time in three games that the Aztecs had fallen far behind at the start. A week earlier, in an 80-61 loss at Utah, the Aztecs trailed, 15-0, on their way to a 28-7 deficit in the first 9 minutes.

The problem Saturday was once again poor shooting. The Aztecs shot a season-low 6 of 29 (20.7%) in the first half against New Mexico, sinking below the 7-of-29 (24.1%) performance they had in the first half at Utah.

Only one Aztec had as many as two field goals in the first half, and it took center Mitch McMullen nine shots to do it. Fourteen of their 23 first-half misses came inside the lane, all within 8 feet.

“We’re not taking firm, aggressive shots inside,” Brandenburg said. “We’re taking a bunch of off-balance soft shots.”

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The Aztecs did come back in the second half to shoot 60.0% (21 of 35), but those 20 minutes could not obscure what has become a team-wide problem. After shooting 53.4% in their first 11 games, the Aztecs have shot 41.2% in the past five.

“We have to suffer as a team,” Brandenburg said. “We just cannot become individualistic worrying about what’s going on, whether someone else is screwing up or whether I’m screwing up. We’re just going to have to play together as a team.

“I much more concerned with how we play as a team (than individually), and I’m really concerned about how we’re playing as team right now.”

Aztec Notes

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Junior guard Tony Ross, the Aztecs’ leading scorer for each of the past two seasons, did not score for the second game in a row after scoring in each of his first 71 games as an Aztec. He played just 13 minutes, all in the first half. . . . Michael Best had his previous career high of 21 twice, against Virginia as a freshman at Clemson and at Brigham Young Jan. 12. . . . Reserve guard Rodney Jones missed his second game because of a sprained left ankle and foot. . . . Reserve junior guard Kevin Honaker finally missed after making his first five shots of the season, including three 3-pointers, when he failed on a 3-pointer in the final 30 seconds. . . . The Aztecs are off until Thursday, when play at Hawaii, site of their only WAC road victory (59-58 last year) in their past 21 conference road games.


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