Vern Thompson stood at the free-throw line wearing a 38.5 free-throw shooting percentage like a blindfold.
Pressure? It was a one-and-one, and SDSU led by a point with six seconds left.
Just like in practice, he told himself. Ready, shoot, wrist-over follow-through. He and Greg Graham, an SDSU assistant coach, have been working on free throws after practice for the past week, and this is what Thompson was thinking as he toed the line.
It worked. He made both, and the Aztecs hung on for a confidence-building victory over Texas El Paso, 58-55, in a game that, at times, neither team seemed too wild about winning.
SDSU failed to deliver the knockout punch early, and UTEP coaches thought the 45-second shot-clock operator pushed the re-set button early during a crucial second-half SDSU possession. No matter. This morning, the Aztecs (8-8, 3-3 in the Western Athletic Conference) are smiling about another victory they had to have in front of 3,118 in the San Diego Sports Arena.
It was SDSU’s second consecutive WAC victory, and it marked the first time since the 1985-86 season that the Aztecs defeated New Mexico and UTEP (11-5, 3-3) back to back at home.
“It was critical for a couple of reasons,” SDSU Coach Jim Brandenburg said. “We needed to gain some confidence on our home floor. Any time you win, it’s a sweet elixir.
“We figured both of these games at home were really hump games. We got by New Mexico; we played so hard and so physical that all of our guys were beat up. When you play as hard as we did Saturday night, that’s a credit to the players. We’re slowly but surely becoming a tough basketball team.”
Arthur Massey led the way with 15 points, and Marty Dow had 14 points and 12 rebounds. Henry Hall led the Miners with 14 points. SDSU outrebounded UTEP, 37-28.
The Washington Generals, who played the Harlem Globetrotters earlier in the day at the Sports Arena, probably shot better than UTEP did in the first half. UTEP started miserably, getting just three baskets in the first 13 minutes and finishing the half at 31% (eight for 26). SDSU built a lead as large as 12 in the first half, and then almost watched it melt away in the second.
“We never took control of the game in the second half, but they didn’t, either,” Brandenburg said.
A key possession for the Aztecs came with just over four minutes remaining and SDSU ahead, 50-46. There was some confusion, and SDSU almost lost the ball twice. Ray Barefield missed a shot, the ball bounced long, and Thompson dove on the right side to save it from going out of bounds. He tapped it to Marty Dow, and the ball eventually went to Courtie Miller at the top of the key.
Miller passed to Thompson on the left side, but the ball bounced off Thompson’s hands and again headed out of bounds. Again, Thompson dived, tipped the ball on the baseline just before it went out of bounds, and Barefield got it.
The Aztecs were confused, and Brandenburg called timeout with just nine seconds left on the shot clock. When they in-bounded the ball, it eventually went to Thompson at the top of the key. His shot missed the rim completely, but Dow grabbed it and put it in. The Miners thought time should have expired.
“They ended up scoring a basket after the buzzer should have gone off,” UTEP Coach Don Haskins said.
Said Brandenburg: “I thought we got a new 45 seconds.”
Whatever, the Aztecs led, 52-46.
UTEP eventually trimmed the margin to two, 54-52, with 39 seconds left, but Massey made two free throws with 24 seconds to play to make it 56-52. After Hall made a three-pointer with 15 seconds to play to make it 56-55, SDSU broke the UTEP press and passed to Thompson, who drove--Haskins thought he traveled--and was fouled by Hall.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m going to can these,’ ” Thompson said.
And he did. And now, confidence in hand, SDSU has evened its WAC record in time for a trip to New Mexico and UTEP next week.
“We can play with everybody in the conference if we just keep our confidence and keep playing hard,” Massey said.