If a victory over a two-year-old Division I basketball program can have much meaning, then maybe some good will come out of San Diego State's 93-78 victory over Florida International at the San Diego Sports Arena Wednesday night.
Because if there was ever a team that needed a boost, it was the Aztecs. Losers of three in a row and 10 of their past 12, the Aztecs were thankful for any victory, even one against a program that as a recently as two years ago was playing teams such as Palm Beach Atlantic and opened this season against Florida Memorial.
"This game came at a good time, and if we can win Saturday night (against U.S. International) maybe we can have a little momentum going into our trip (next week) to New Mexico and Texas El Paso," said junior guard Tony Ross, who scored a season-high 25 points before fouling out with 2:07 left. "These games could be the most important of the season because they can give us a little boost going into the conference tournament."
That is not to say any of the Aztecs would confuse a victory over the Golden Panthers (9-16) with one against any member of the Western Athletic Conference, but at this point of what has become a disappointing season for the Aztecs (11-14), any hopeful sign is encouraging.
"It wasn't pretty, but we'll take it," said reserve guard Rodney Jones, who scored a season-high nine points. "We needed something to go our way."
The Aztecs established control early behind the shooting of Ross, who scored nine of his 25 points in the first 5 minutes. Ross took advantage of a man-to-man defense that left him unguarded for several layups and long-range jumpers.
"When you get out of league, teams don't have a long time to scout you, and they leave shooters open," SDSU Coach Jim Brandenburg said. "You turn him loose, and he is going to score. We did a good job getting him the basketball, and he did a good job getting it into the hole."
Ross was one of four Aztecs, but the only starter, to score a season high against the Golden Panthers as Brandenburg used the game to substitute freely. Much of that was out of choice, but quite a bit was out of necessity. Four Aztecs fouled out, including three starters--center Mitch McMullen, power forward Sam Johnson and Ross.
For McMullen, it was his ninth disqualification, third in his past four games and his earliest of the season. McMullen fouled out with 11:18 to play with six points and six rebounds.
The numerous substitutions made for some unusual combinations. At one point the Aztecs were playing with two walk-on guards--William Dixion and Kevin Honaker.
"I was just trying to give some guys who haved played much some playing time," Brandenburg said. "At some times our combinations were kind of strange."
Brandenburg hardly appeared worried about it all. He kept starters Shawn Bell and Michael Best on the bench even with Florida International as close as 10 points in the final 3 minutes.
But the Golden Panthers were never able to get much closer. The loss was only their third in the past nine games. They had revived their season after a 1-13 midyear swoon.
The Aztecs' 93 points were the most since a 102-88 victory over UC Irvine, but the crowd of 1,768 was the worst since 1,529 attended a New Year's Eve victory over Vermont and the third worst in the past two seasons.
"We were not at our sharpest," Brandenburg said. "We got out to an early lead and just (traded baskets) for most of the night. The one good thing was we had a chance to play a lot of the younger players."