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Aztecs Bury Their Worries In an Anthill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They had heard all about UC Irvine and its full-court press, fast-break offense and penchant for three-point shots. They remembered last year’s humiliating 13-point loss, which was embarrassing because Irvine proceeded to go on a school-record 15-game losing streak immediately afterward.

What the San Diego State Aztecs weren’t sure about was how their inexperienced guards would react to it all, and whether their injury- and flu-stricken team would be able to keep up with the pace.

Turns out, Irvine should have worried. The Aztecs led by 15 much of the second half and easily won, 87-73, Saturday in front of 1,384--not including one large, inflated fish taco in the balcony and several billboards dangerously close to the court shilling for basketball sponsors--in Peterson Gym.

It was the first victory over a Division I team this year for SDSU (3-3), which has had seven players miss practice time since the season started because of various injuries or the flu. But the Aztecs didn’t have much of a problem Saturday night, and they are now have a three-game winning streak.

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“UC Irvine is a scrappy, well-coached basketball team,” SDSU Coach Jim Brandenburg said. “This was a better win for us tonight than a lot of people might think. We got some positive play. Our defense isn’t letter-perfect, but I have a hunch we’re going to start playing some pretty good defense.”

Marty Dow, SDSU’s 7-foot-1 center, led the way with 23 points and 14 rebounds. Arthur Massey, SDSU’s only returning guard, had 19 points, nine assists and six steals.

“We got penetration on their zone because they were spread out all over the place,” Brandenburg said. “There were a lot of open pockets. They gave us trouble on defense because you can’t make a drop inside to help out against this team.”

Jeff Herdman led Irvine (3-5) with 16. With Dow clogging up the middle, Irvine’s Ricky Butler managed just 14 points--five below his average--and six rebounds--two below his average.

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SDSU shot 52.9%--a season-high against Division I opponents--from the field. Irvine shot 47%. The Anteaters, averaging 93.4 points and just less than 30 three-point attempts a game, made eight of 29 three-point attempts.

The Aztecs led by 11 at the half, but Irvine cut that to three, 56-53, with 15:26 remaining. Guard James Lewis entered the game at that point, and he and Massey led 12-0 SDSU run.

It started with two Vern Thompson free throws. Massey followed with a miss, a rebound and a follow of his shot. Lewis then made two consecutive layups, and followed those with a slick pass inside, which Keith Balzer turned into a slam dunk.

Courtie Miller then made another layup, and it was 68-53. The Anteaters never got the deficit less than double-digits again.

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SDSU led at the half, 50-39. It was close most of the way, but the turning point came after an exchange of centers with 8:09 remaining before halftime and SDSU ahead, 27-26.

At that point, Dow, who had been given a three-minute rest, re-entered the game, replacing Neal Steinly. Meanwhile, Irvine’s Butler left because he had picked up his second foul.

The Aztecs went on a 10-4 run and led, 37-30, when Butler returned with 5:12 left. During that time, Dow scored seven of SDSU’s 10 points, grabbed a handful of rebounds and generally dominated inside.

And despite Butler’s return to the lineup, SDSU’s momentum continued. Irvine trimmed SDSU’s lead to five, 43-38, on Dylan Rigdon’s three-pointer, but Dow made a driving shot, Massey hit a three-pointer and followed that with a steal and a feed to Balzer for a dunk. Halftime arrived with the Aztecs in the midst of a 23-13 run and owning an 11-point lead. Their largest margin in the half was 12, 50-38.

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Dow had 15 points and eight rebounds at the half. SDSU, shooting 46.8% from the field in its first five games, made 52.6% of its shots in the first half. Irvine, meanwhile, made 51.7%. The difference was, Irvine had 14 turnovers and the Aztecs just eight.


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