For a San Diego State basketball that has watched a promising season crumble under a series of player suspensions, defections and injuries, there was nowhere to hide Thursday night.
A standing-room-only crowd of 18,100 filled the University Arena, better known as the Pit, to watch New Mexico humiliate what is left of an Aztec team that two months ago was atop the Western Athletic Conference standings.
The Lobos disposed of the Aztecs, 102-72, in a result that kept them in a first-place tie with Colorado State and assured the Aztecs of their second last-place finish in three seasons.
The defeat was the worst by the Aztecs (12-15 overall, 4-11 in WAC play) since a 110-78 beating by Arizona on Dec. 4, 1986. It was latest blow in what is turning into the unkindest week of what already has become a season of woe. And it is not over.
The Aztecs were to travel today to Texas El Paso (21-6, 10-5), where they conclude their regular season Saturday night against a team that has beaten them eight times in a row. They will have to take on the Miners, as they did the Lobos (19-8, 11-4), without junior guard Michael Best.
Best, the team’s second leading scorer, was banned from the team for the season this week for what university officials called unspecified “medical reasons.”
The loss of Best, three weeks after the suspension of senior guard Bryan Williams for the season following his arrest for petty theft, left the Aztecs without their two best ballhandlers. Not the situation the Aztecs wanted against a New Mexico team that prefers a pressing, up-tempo game.
The result was predictable. The Lobos forced SDSU into 18 turnovers as they quickly turned the game into a rout. That gave the Aztecs plenty of time to ponder their predicament; they did little to hide their displeasure.
“I’m starting to think we had a better team last year,” senior forward Sam Johnson said.
That is saying much considering the Aztecs finished the 1987-88 season at 12-17 overall, 5-11 in the WAC. Prospects for this team were much brighter after an 8-4, 2-0 start but since then the Aztecs have lost 11 of 15, including 11 of 13 in the conference. They also have stretched their road losing streak to nine games and have lost 25 of their past 26 conference games outside of San Diego.
This loss assured the Aztecs that they will open the WAC tournament Wednesday at Utah in a preliminary game for the right to meet the top-seeded team Thursday night.
“We are in a situation where as men and as a team we have to reach down inside and come back stronger,” said senior forward Shawn Bell, who led the Aztecs with 18 points. “It’s just something we have to do.”
The Aztecs did themselves no favors by playing directly into the Lobos’ game plan from the start. And despite constant pleading and hounding from SDSU Coach Jim Brandenburg to play a patient game, the Aztecs found themselves caught up in the Lobos’ speed-up style.
The result was a series of easy baskets and turnovers. Of New Mexico’s 28 first-half field goals, 19 came on layups or dunks. The Aztecs made 10 turnovers in the half, and the first nine led to 18 Lobo points.
“They were able to speed up the tempo real fast and get us to play their game,” said SDSU center Mitch McMullen, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds. “That really hurt us because they have a lot more depth, and they had the crowd support behind them.”
But Brandenburg said that even a slowdown game might have been a doomed strategy.
“You really have to have seasoned guards to do that and right now our guard line has had trouble doing that,” Brandenburg said.
The Aztecs are down to two scholarship guards, juniors Tony Ross and Rodney Jones. Ross is primarily used as a shooter and Jones, who made his first start in place of Best, had been averaging only 11 minutes per game.
Short on players, handicapped for strategy, Brandenburg and the Aztecs have little left to rely on to carry them through the end.
“We just have to be strong,” Brandenburg said. “That’s all we can do.”