Hoops stumbles vs. rival Aztecs
Poor shooting plagues Toreros as team’s undefeated start to season ends in city championship
Noah Hilton | Sports Editor | The USD Vista
Last Thursday night opened with a level of anticipation rarely seen around the Jenny Craig Pavilion. The two best college basketball teams in America’s Finest City were set to square off for the city championship once again.
On one side, the San Diego State Aztecs: a usual West Coast heavyweight on the hardwood and winners of 11 of the last 12 city crowns. With a new head coach on the sideline in Brian Dutcher, the Aztecs were coming off a tough seven-point loss to Washington State in the Wooden Legacy tournament and still seemed to be finding their identity after years as a defense-first squad.
On the other, the University of San Diego Toreros: off to their best start since 2013-14 and a single victory away from the program’s best-ever start at the Division I level. Always the second choice when it comes to local collegiate athletics, the Toreros finally appeared to be on the upswing of a full rebuild under head coach Lamont Smith.
Given the local hype surrounding the game, it seemed as if USD would finally have a chance at a statement win in its annual crosstown match-up. It would step out of the shadow of its public-school neighbor and re-establish a long-dormant rivalry as worth watching once again.
Then the hiccups began.
The USD Dance Team failed to begin a halftime performance after technical difficulties with their music.
The video boards in the Jenny Craig Pavilion froze near the end of the second half.
Most importantly, the Toreros clanged open shots off the rim, shooting just 37 percent from the field and 23 percent from deep.
The result: a 66-57 defeat at the hands of the Aztecs in what felt less like a rivalry-game loss and more like a stay-in-your-lane statement from the visiting team.
The story for the Toreros was a consistent inability to find the bottom of the net. Stuck at one point in a nine-minute drought on the back of 14 straight misses from the field, the game carried echoes of previous crosstown match-ups plagued by poor shooting.
Smith expressed his disappointment in the Toreros’ offensive showing after the game.
“I thought early on, our flow offensively was not good,” Smith said. “I thought the ball stuck in hands a lot. We started missing shots from three and I thought that really got in our heads. We didn’t shoot the basketball like we’re capable of doing.”
Fortunately for the Toreros, USD’s defensive efforts kept the game within reach for much of the night.
“I thought our defense kept us around a little bit,” Smith said. “In the second half, our defense broke down a little bit. Credit to San Diego State though. I thought Devin Watson was outstanding from start to finish, and they beat us.”
Watson, a junior guard from Oceanside, led all scorers by a healthy margin with 26 points on the night. Playing a full 40 minutes, Watson also chipped in five steals and three rebounds while confidently waving off jeers from the USD student section.
“I was just in my rhythm tonight,” Watson said. “They were laying off of me sometimes, so I knocked down a jumper, got my teammates involved, and we came out with the win.”
The lone bright spot for the Toreros was redshirt junior forward Isaiah Pineiro. Finally on the court after sitting out all of last season because of NCAA transfer rules, Pineiro led USD with 19 points while contributing three blocks and three steals on the defensive end.
“Isaiah started us off and got us going really well,” Smith said. “That’s what he’s been doing though. He’s a really good basketball player and we expect big things from him.”
Pineiro’s play wasn’t enough to overcome what he described as a concerning lack of energy in one of the biggest games of the year, as the team failed to match the competitive snarl of their fiery head coach.
“I don’t know why, but we didn’t have our bite to us tonight,” Pineiro said. “We didn’t play with as big of a chip on our shoulder as we usually do, and it showed. [Coach Smith] brings great energy every day, and we usually respond to that. Today, though, we didn’t, and we didn’t have the same energy.”
The on-court energy was further juxtaposed by the support of the 4,536 fans filling the Slim Gym to the brim. Often criticized for its lack of engagement with university athletics, the campus community showed up in support Thursday night, raining chants of “Olé” down on the court and wearing shirts with “You’re our safety school” printed on the back.
The authentically college atmosphere proved to be a positive for both Smith and USD athletic director Bill McGillis.
“That’s what college basketball is all about,” Smith said. “Our students are really important for us if we want to be a high-caliber basketball program. It goes hand in hand: we need our students and we need our fans to be there to support us and hopefully next game when they come out we can play a little bit better.”
McGillis echoed Smith’s sentiments about the atmosphere.
“I thought it was a great event,” McGillis said. “It had a really good buzz, and I think everybody who came from both schools had a great experience. I think it’s great for the city and great for college basketball.”
Unfortunately, those bright spots remained overshadowed by the end result of the night.
Although disappointed, Smith emphasized the number of games still to be played on the Toreros’ schedule.
“Our guys are disappointed,” Smith said. “But we knew we weren’t going to go 30-0. I think the disappointing thing is that our guys know that we didn’t play our best. Sometimes, you’re okay with losing if you play your best, and we didn’t do that tonight. We’ve got to quickly move forward though and wash this one out.”
Ultimately, though, it’s hard to hide the missed opportunities of the night. It went beyond open shots that didn’t fall. It was something more: a chance at competitive credibility in the school’s most visible sport, generating excitement and then falling short with America’s Finest City watching.
The campus community showed up. In frustrating and disheartening fashion, the team did not, as a winnable game slipped away from the Toreros.
The chants of “little sister” from the SDSU faithful that preceded the final whistle, while small in vocal support, couldn’t have been louder.