With the San Diego State players headed quickly out of the locker room and Coach Jim Brandenburg doing his best to be diplomatic about the crumbling state of his team, it fell to Texas El Paso’s star guard, Tim Hardaway, to explain what has gone wrong with the Aztecs.
Because even from his vantage point in UTEP’s 93-69 regular-season ending victory Saturday night in front of a sellout crowd of 12,222 at the Special Events Center, it was clear what was wrong.
Hardaway saw the animated activity on the bench between players and coaches and the players’ behavior toward each other on the court. He concluded the Aztec were a divided team.
“I saw that they were unhappy with their coach, and the team was unhappy with themselves,” Hardaway said. “Their team has just gone to pieces. They have lost a lot of their teammates for various reasons, and it was obvious that they weren’t prepared to come on this road trip and win two games.
“But Brandenburg will pick them up, and they’ll be ready.”
The last-place Aztecs (12-17 overall, 4-12 in conference play) must play at least one more game. They are to meet Utah Wednesday night in the preliminary round of the Western Athletic Conference tournament at Utah. The winner of that game earns the right to meet conference champion Colorado State in the quarterfinals Thursday night.
“We just have to find the right chemistry,” Brandenburg said.
Time is running out and so, it appears, is his team’s patience.
Brandenburg’s game plan was to play a controlled offensive game, but the Aztecs had trouble following those instructions from the start. The result was some frayed nerves between Brandenburg and some of his players.
Among them were guard Tony Ross and forward Shawn Bell, both of whom spent time on the bench after a displeased Brandenburg removed them from the game.
A visibly annoyed Bell spent parts of the second half at the far end of the bench. And Ross was upset enough to be heard from seats behind the bench as he criticized Brandenburg for taking him out of the game.
Brandenburg would not criticize his players after the game except to say, “We had very poor shot selection.”
He said some of his displeasure during the game was the result of poor communications between the players on the court.
But whatever the cause, the result was another Aztec road loss. SDSU has lost 10 consecutive games on the road and 26 of its past 27 road WAC games, including 11 in a row.
The loss was the ninth consecutive to the Miners (22-6, 11-5), whose victory--combined with Hawaii’s 71-70 victory at New Mexico--gave them a second-place tie with the Lobos.
There was no secret to the Miners’ success against the Aztecs. They used their superior height and jumping ability to block 10 shots, several of which keyed fast break baskets at the other end. They forced 16 turnovers. And they turned Hardaway loose in the first half, in his pursuit of Nate (Tiny) Archibald’s school scoring record.
Hardaway made the most of his opportunity, scoring 21 of his game-high 25 points in the first half. He broke Archibald’s record when he scored his 19th point with 6:28 left in the half.
Hardaway, a 6-foot senior from Chicago, finished the game with 1,466 points over his four-year career. Archibald had 1,459 points in three seasons (1968-70).
“Hardaway tore us up,” Brandenburg said.
But unlike Thursday night, when they fell 10 points behind New Mexico in the first 5 minutes of a 102-72 loss, at least this time the Aztecs were able to stay with the Miners for 10 minutes.
UTEP did not take its first double-digit lead until building a 25-15 advantage with 10:03 left in the half. But after that, the Aztecs could get no closer as the Miners took their biggest first-half lead at 42-24 at 3:43.
SDSU did manage to stay as close as 64-51 with 10:47 to play, but UTEP went on a 12-2 run in a 2:21 span to take control for good at 76-53.
That left plenty of time for Brandenburg to settle his unhappy players on the bench.
“What we’re trying to do is keep everyone in the team concept,” Brandenburg said.
“We’re having trouble with our shot selection. It’s not just with one or two players, but with quite a few players.”