In a season marked by controversy, maybe it was only fitting that the final game for this San Diego State basketball team should end with at least one more.
Tony Ross, the team’s second-leading scorer and best outside shooter, was benched for disciplinary reasons in the final minutes of a 70-57 loss to host Utah Wednesday night in the preliminary game of the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
Ross spent the final 4:23 on the bench after apparently getting into a disagreement with Coach Jim Brandenburg.
Ross left with the Aztecs trailing, 62-53, and the game still within their grasp. But the Utes (16-16) scored eight of the final 12 points to eliminate SDSU (12-17) and earn the right to meet regular-season champion Colorado State in the quarterfinals tonight at Huntsman Center.
Ross, a junior who scored 12 of his team-high 14 points in the first half, would not discuss the incident.
“If I said something, it would be the wrong thing,” Ross said.
Brandenburg would only say that “we had a little discussion.”
Brandenburg and Ross have had their public disagreements throughout the season. The two exchanged words several times last week during games at New Mexico and Texas El Paso, and Brandenburg kept Ross on the bench at times during both games. But not until the latest incident did Brandenburg take such an extreme measure.
The decision to bench Ross was the latest and the last in what had been season-long struggle for Brandenburg and his team. Before the game, Brandenburg imposed his rule again, replacing senior forward Shawn Bell in the starting lineup with freshman Dana Jackson.
Brandenburg called the move a “coach’s decision” but did not elaborate.
The decision to not start Bell was not the only adjustment Brandenburg had to make. William Dixion, a junior walk-on guard, returned to Los Angeles Wednesday morning to be with his ailing grandmother and missed the game. That left the Aztecs with only three guards--Ross, junior walk-on Kevin Honaker and junior Rodney Jones, who played despite pregame nausea.
Despite all their troubles, the Aztecs found a way to stay with Utah, even though it appeared that their cause might be lost from the beginning.
The Utes scored the first seven points in a start reminiscent of their 15-0 opening in an 80-61 regular-season victory over the Aztecs atHuntsman. But this time, the Aztecs rallied to take the lead by scoring the next eight points and went on to take lead by as much as 21-15 with 7:40 left in the half.
The Aztecs’ cause was not hurt by the sparse crowd of 5,508, Utah’s smallest since 5,017 attended a Dec. 12, 1975, game against Denver, that had come to watch the game between the tournament’s two lowest-seeded teams. Utah came back to outscore the Aztecs, 19-7, to take a 34-28 lead at halftime. But SDSU was still in the game, thanks in many ways to Ross, who had one of his best statistical halves of the season: 12 points, six rebounds, three assists, three steals.
“Tony did did some nice things for us,” Brandenburg said. “I can’t fault his play at all.”
But even when Ross cooled off in the second half and center Mitch McMullen, who had 10 first-half points, found himself surrounded by a collapsing defense that limited him to three points in the second, the Aztecs stayed close.
They trailed by two (51-49) with as little as 8:21 to play before, according to Brandenburg and the players, their lack of depth finally caught up with them.
“We were tired, and they were pushing the ball down our throats,” Jones said.
Utah went on an 11-2 streak to take a 62-53 lead with 5:54 to play. Soon after, Ross and Brandenburg had the disagreement that prematurely ended Ross’ season. The end for the last-place Aztecs came a few minutes later; it was their earliest exit in the tournament’s six-year history.
The game was a snapshot of what went wrong for the Aztecs the later half of the season. They made a tournament-record 22 turnovers, including nine by Bell, who ended up playing 29 minutes. They were mediocre from the free-throw line (nine of 18). They had difficulty defending perimeter shooting--freshman forward Josh Grant of Utah scored a game-high 19 points, including three three-pointers. And there was internal turmoil on the bench.
“We went through a lot this year,” Jones said. “Hopefully the guys comingback will know how it was, and they will listen to the coaches more, have more desire. We had it this year; we just couldn’t put it together at times.”
Mitch McMullen finished his San Diego State career with a record he would have liked to avoid. His two fouls gave him 110, breaking by two the seasonrecord set by Rodney Hawkins last year. . . . The 22 turnovers broke the Western Athletic Conference tournament record of 20 set by Hawaii against Utah in 1984 and were one short of the season high set in a 77-72 loss at Arizona State.