Free throws. Close basketball games often come down to free throws.
And take a look at the free-throw column in San Diego State's 84-79 overtime loss Thursday to Hawaii:
SDSU made only 14 of 23 and, as Hawaii took a quick lead in overtime and the Aztecs tried to fight back, they managed to make only five of nine. And because of those numbers, SDSU's Western Athletic Conference numbers are looking worse this morning. The Aztecs (10-14, 5-9), tied with Hawaii (14-11, 6-8) for sixth entering the evening, now stand alone in seventh. And with only two conference games left, the Aztecs have run out of home dates. At Wyoming (Saturday) and at Hawaii (next Saturday) is certainly not an ideal segue into the WAC tournament, which begins March 6.
"We missed a bunch of free throws, and we missed a bunch of lay-ins," SDSU Coach Jim Brandenburg said, shaking his head outside a quiet SDSU locker room. "It's just a lack of concentration. We just didn't concentrate long enough."
SDSU shot 52.5% from the floor, making 31 of 59 shots. It was the first time since the Aztecs' loss to UCLA Dec. 29 that they made more than 50% of their field-goal attempts. Which only magnifies SDSU's poor free-throw shooting.
Not that Hawaii was much better from the line--the Rainbows made only 10 of 17. But four of SDSU's killer misses came in overtime. The parade to the line:
With the Aztecs trailing, 74-72, Marty Dow missed the front end of a one-and-one. With SDSU down, 79-75, and 1:35 left, Keith Balzer missed one of two. With SDSU down, 79-76, with 1:00 left, Arthur Massey missed one of two. And with SDSU down, 79-77, with 46 seconds left, Balzer again missed one of two.
"I did everything I usually do," Balzer said. "Took a breath, three dribbles, and shot. They just didn't go in."
No, the ball just didn't bounce right for Balzer or the Aztecs in front of a San Diego Sports Arena crowd of 2,228. With the Aztecs trailing, 82-79 and only seven seconds left in overtime, Massey missed a three-point attempt.
Hawaii's Ray Reed, the WAC's leading scorer entering the game, busted loose for 18 first-half points before Brandenburg put Ray Barefield on him in the second half. Barefield held Reed to seven in the final 25 minutes. But Hawaii's Troy Bowe had 20 points in the final 25 minutes (he finished with 24) and Phil Lott added 12 (he finished with 17).
Massey led SDSU with 23, Courtie Miller 18--an SDSU career-high, Dow 15 and Balzer 14. Dow took only one shot in the second half.
It was a high-octane night--22 lead changes and 12 ties. And the longer it went, the tighter it got.
In Brandenburg's mind, a key play came with 46 seconds left in overtime. That's when Balzer went to the line. But rewind that tape:
At the Hawaii end of the floor, Miller stole the ball from Mike Gilless. Miller lost it, but Balzer picked it up. Gilless dived, and fouled Balzer. Brandenburg thought it should have been an intentional foul--two free throws plus possession for SDSU. That's not the way referee Paul Sternberger saw it. The Aztecs trailed at the time, 79-76.
"I thought that was a fairly significant play," Brandenburg said.
The Aztecs sent the game into overtime with a tip at the regulation buzzer.
Bowe missed the front end of a one-and-one with 26 seconds to play and Hawaii leading, 72-70, but the ball hit the rim, bounced long and ended up in Reed's arms at the top of the key. He passed--and Massey stole it.
Twenty seconds left. The Aztecs took the ball down and called time with 11 seconds remaining.
They inbounded. Massey took the ball out on top of the key, dribbled, and drove left. He threw up an off-balance shot that missed badly. A hand appeared--Miller's hand--and softly tapped the ball back toward the basket. It settled into the net as the buzzer sounded.
The Aztecs sizzled at the start of the second half, making 10 of their first 13 shots--including six in a row--but still couldn't shake Hawaii. At that point, they led, 55-53. They eventually built a 68-63 lead with about five minutes to play, but it slowly evaporated.
After a sluggish first seven minutes--it took that long for either team to reach double figures--the last 13 in the first half turned into a shootout. Hawaii heated up first, scoring 10 unanswered points to take a 20-10 lead.
The Aztecs, though, went on a 12-2 run to tie the game at 22-22. SDSU was able to find a key to its inside game, and Dow and Miller combined for 10 of SDSU's 12 points during the stretch.
Still, the Aztecs trailed at halftime, 36-33, mainly because they couldn't find a way to stop Reed.