Aztecs Scale Up, Over at Air Force

TIMES STAFF WRITER

These are uncommon times along the front range of the Rocky Mountains. Mid-January and Pikes Peak stand over a city almost barren of snow. The high temperature poked around 60 degrees Saturday afternoon as shoppers walked downtown streets in T-shirts and shorts.

But the most unlikely occurrence might have taken place later that night on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy. That is where the San Diego State basketball team defeated Air Force, 72-68, in front of 2,400 at the Cadet Field House.

If that does not sound all that strange, consider this:

--The victory was the first by the Aztecs on an opponents' home court in 15 games over two seasons and only their fifth in 48 games over five seasons. Their last such victory was 83-58 at Baylor on Nov. 29, 1988.

--The victory was their first in a Western Athletic Conference road game in 14 tries over three seasons, their second in their past 30 and third in 35 games over five seasons. Their last such victory was by 59-58 at Hawaii on Feb. 1, 1988. Only one member of the current team, junior center Neal Steinly, was around to remember it.

--And it was their first victory at Air Force after three consecutive losses, two of which were among the more embarrassing of their many road defeats.

Last year, the Aztecs lost, 87-69, their worst of five defeats in the 20-game series. The year before they lost, 60-57, in Coach Jim Brandenburg's first season at SDSU after nine seasons at WAC rival Wyoming. That was Brandenburg's first loss at Air Force in nine games at Montana and Wyoming, discounting a Montana victory in 1976 that was later forfeited because of the use of an ineligible player.

That prompted a particularly depressed Brandenburg to reply in response to a persistent reporter's question that he must have lost at Air Force sometime before with the words, "Read my lips: 'Never.' "

His comments were quite different this time around.

"This victory can mean a lot for this program," Brandenburg said. "I'm more pleased about this than anything we've done this year."

What made the victory so special was not only that it was on the road but that it came on a night when the Aztecs (10-7, 2-2) had cause to continue with their habitual road woes.

Senior guard Michael Best, their second-leading scorer, sat on the bench in street clothes, out with an ankle sprained Thursday night in a 76-60 loss at Wyoming.

When Air Force (6-8, 0-2) took a 7-0 lead in the first 3:02, the Aztecs looked as if they were reverting to old habits. But instead of caving in, they rallied to score the next 10 points. And after the Falcons came back to regain the lead at 22-21 with 4:45 left in the half, the Aztecs responded again by scoring the final 11 points before intermission to take a 32-22 halftime lead.

SDSU stretched its advantage to 40-25 in the first 2:12 of the second half and still led by as much as 10 points at 59-49 with five minutes to play. And with Air Force guard Raymond Dudley, the WAC's leading scorer, on the bench with a knee injury, it appeared as if the Aztecs might be able comfortably finish out their streak-snapping victory. But little has been that easy for the Aztecs this past five years, especially on the road.

The Falcons turned up their press and were content to put the Aztecs at the line at every opportunity in hopes SDSU would miss and they would rebound. Considering that two nights earlier, the Aztecs missed 19 of 36 free throws at Wyoming, the strategy appeared sounded. And when the Aztecs missed the front of three consecutive one-and-ones in a two-minute span, it paid off.

The Aztec misses allowed Air Force to score seven consecutive points to draw to within, 59-56, with 2:43 left. But the Aztecs came back to score eight of the next 10 points to lead 67-58 with 1:22. Playing without Dudley, their best three-point shooter, that should have been the end of the Falcons, but remember, overcoming five years of bad history would not be that easy.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
56°