Men’s basketball loses 69-59 at SDSU
The sound echoed off the still-filling grandstands surrounding the stadium. No, not basketballs bouncing off the floor, or nets softly rustling with each made warm-up three, or the pregame chatter between players and coaches that accompanies the beginnings of any sporting event.
Those sounds were all there, too, but this was different. A single voice, echoed by many, many more, all chanting the same words in the direction of the hardwood, “I believe that we will win!”
The chorus cascaded down onto the court, joined by the pounding of stomping feet and wild applause from The Show, San Diego State University’s nationally-known student section.
Just a year removed from an upset win at Petco Park that likely played a role in knocking the Aztecs out of the NCAA postseason tournament, head coach Lamont Smith and the University of San Diego Toreros traveled east to San Diego State University and Viejas Arena on Friday, Nov. 11.
They were hoping that lightning could strike twice in a match-up of San Diego’s top two hoops programs. Unfortunately, despite jumping out to an early lead, the Toreros were unable to hold on and dropped a surprisingly close one to the Aztecs, 69-59.
The boys in blue certainly played well for stretches over the course of the game. With the Aztecs struggling with fouls and clanging shot after shot off the rim, flaws that reared their ugly heads for much of 2015-16, the Toreros were able to build up a nine point lead at one point and entered the half trailing by just two.
This was done largely on the backs of two freshmen, guard Nassir Barrino and forward Juwan Gray, who both overcame the challenges of the hostile crowd to impress in their collegiate debuts.
“I’m thankful to the coaching staff for giving me the opportunity to play, and want to give them credit for preparing myself and my teammates for the game,” Barrino said.
He finished the game with 11 points while slashing through the lane on multiple occasions.
Unfortunately, a scoring drought that covered almost nine minutes in the middle of the second half opened the door for a short-handed SDSU squad to battle their way to the lead with an 18-2 run that proved to be the difference in the game.
Sophomore guard Olin Carter cited that run as one of the main reasons for the Toreros’ loss.
“We let them gain momentum and they ran with it,” Carter said. “We didn’t do a good job of handling it. Our execution started to slip, and our offense started to dictate our defense and force us into some tough spots in terms of fouls.”
Carter led the Toreros with 17 points while playing a team-high 37 minutes.
That dominant run exposed some of the weaknesses that could haunt the Toreros over the course of the season.
A lack of size in the frontcourt, especially compared to the physically superior Aztecs, left the Toreros struggling to work the ball inside consistently, dribbling deep into the shot clock and lofting tough shots from the perimeter with no one down low to haul in misses.
Another significant deficiency of this year’s team could be their inexperience, something that can be expected from a squad that rosters just four upperclassmen, two of whom are ineligible this year due to transfer rules.
Smith noted the Aztecs’ experience was a game changer, especially compared to his extremely fresh group of guards.
“Their experience in the backcourt was definitely a difference maker in the game,” Smith said.
Going up against a duo with just one year of college between them, the Aztecs’ backcourt pairing of Trey Kell and Jeremy Hemsley combined for 48 points and just three turnovers in the win.
Despite the loss, Smith carries optimism going forward and said he was impressed with many aspects of his team’s performance.
“I was really excited about how our freshmen played early on,” Smith said. “I even felt like, as a team, we outplayed them in some ways. It’s about consistency though. You have to maintain that performance over a full forty minutes.”
Those looking for a positive can certainly find one in the fact that such a young team did so well in spite of the rowdy SDSU crowd raining noise down on the court. A near-capacity crowd of more than 12,000 fans showed up to support last year’s Mountain West Conference regular-season champs, a crowd that the Toreros are unlikely to see in many other games this season.
Their head coach is certainly cognizant of the fact that this game could help the Toreros mightily down the road.
“I thought the guys did a tremendous job of handling the adversity of the moment,” Smith said. “The environment was definitely good preparation for those tough away games against WCC teams like Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, and BYU.”
Ultimately, in spite of the loss, the hoop heads around Torero Town should absolutely be encouraged by the team’s performance as a whole. Perhaps the most telling comment of the night, in fact, might be one from newfound whiz kid Barrino.
“These coaches preach the little things,” Barrino said. “We messed up on some stuff tonight, but, as the season progresses, I absolutely believe we will get better.”
The Toreros now sit at 0-2 after following the loss to the Aztecs with an 83-65 loss to the Samford University Bulldogs.
Carter was the leading scorer again, pouring in 15 points while also pacing the team with three assists. Freshman guard Mark Carbone scored the first points of his career against Samford, canning two of seven three point shots.
Mistakes will be made. There will be other losses. But, for a team as green and unseasoned as the baby ballers of Alcalá Park, improvement is the name of the game.
With newcomers like Barrino and Gray flashing much-needed potential while returners like Carter and the team’s lone senior, Brett Bailey, provide some veteran leadership, the team looks to have more than a few wins up its sleeve in the weeks and months to come.
Written by Noah Hilton, Staff Writer