Poor shooting dooms Aztecs against Saint Mary’s

Third time, not a charm.

Turquoise uniforms, no longer undefeated.

San Diego State ran out of magic against Saint Mary’s, losing 68-61 at Phoenix’s Footprint Center after a pair of double-digit, neutral-court victories against the Gaels in the previous two years.

It was the first time the Aztecs have lost in the N7 turquoise jerseys that honor Native American Heritage Month after being 9-0 in them (although all nine were at home against teams not of Saint Mary’s pedigree). But that is the least of their problems.

It’s almost certainly adios to their No. 22 ranking in both major polls and, perhaps, their aspirations to be a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament (and the geographic favors that come with it) barring an insane run through what appears to be a stronger than expected Mountain West. A loss to the Gaels, which was higher than SDSU in the metrics, isn’t crushing, but now the Aztecs sit behind them in the West Coast pecking order when the Selection Committee convenes in March.

The Aztecs fell behind by nine in the first half, came back, briefly took the lead, then fell behind by nine again, got within three and no closer.

One reason was the Aztecs were able to get only 18 minutes out of Nathan Mensah, who averaged a double-double in the last two meetings with the Gaels but had just four points and four rebounds before fouling out. The Aztecs were plus-one point with him on the floor, minus-seven without.

Another reason: This team simply can’t shoot, especially from 3-point territory. They were 23 of 56 from the field for 41.1 percent.

But it went 3 of 15 behind the arc after entering the day ranked 310th in 3-point accuracy against Division I opposition at 29.2 percent and follows a 4 of 22 effort earlier in the week against Troy. Last year in this same building against the same opponent, they were 7 of 10 from deep.

Another reason: Down five with 45.2 seconds left, after a timeout to diagram an inbounds play, the Aztecs couldn’t find anyone open and were assessed a five-second violation.

Keshad Johnson had an effective 20 minutes, finishing with 12 points (5 of 6 shooting) and four rebounds. But leading scorers Matt Bradley (13 points) and Darrion Trammell (seven) combined to shoot 7 of 23 overall and 1 of 8 behind the arc.

All the things the Aztecs were able to do to Saint Mary’s the last two years, they suddenly couldn’t.

The Gaels went from shooting 5 of 20 and 5 of 22 behind the arc to opening 4 of 8. Mensah went from two monster games, with a combined nine blocks, to sitting on the bench with two fouls. Two years ago, the Aztecs led 37-12 with four minutes left in the first half; Saturday, they trailed 30-21 after five early turnovers and twice missing the front ends of one-and-one free throws.

But coach Brian Dutcher has talked about what he likes most in this team, for all its current offensive and defensive deficiencies, is its resilience. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that it was tied at the half despite Mensah and Trammell on the bench in foul trouble.

Down 35-27, the Aztecs went on a 7-0 run in the final 87 seconds of the half: a steal by Lamont Butler that led to two free throws, a drive and strong layup in traffic by Keshad Johnson and then a banked-in 3 by Micah Parrish from midcourt at the buzzer after a fourth straight defensive stop.

Jaedon LeDee grabbed the rebound with four seconds left and fed Parrish, who dribbled to midcourt and launched the 45-footer that, replays showed, was released before time expired.

That tied it in a game that probably shouldn’t have been. Shoot 54.2 percent overall and 4 of 10 behind the arc, as the Gaels did, and you expect to have a comfortable lead.

The Aztecs had the ball to open the second half and quickly got a basket from Mensah on a screen and roll with Butler. Fourteen seconds later, though, he had his third foul and was back on the bench.

With 18:02 to go, Alex Ducas — he of 14 first-half points — had three as well, and this quickly became a game of attrition, seeing which team could keep its best players on the floor.

Ducas got a fourth with 7:24 left when he intentionally fouled to stop an Aztecs fast break after Logan Johnson took a hard fall and was writhing on the floor. But Ducas stayed in, and Johnson returned shortly, and the Gaels went ahead 59-50 on a Ducas 3 with 5:30 left.

Dutcher called timeout, and the Aztecs finally came to life again. Three minutes later, Trammell went to the line for a one-and-one to pull within one. He missed, then 7-foot-1 freshman center Harry Wessels scored on an inbounds play and fouled out Mensah.

After another missed 3 at the other end, another Gaels freshman, Aidan Mahaney, made a pair of free throws with 1:11 left to push the margin to seven and that was that. Mahaney finished with a game-high 20 points.

The Aztecs have little time to sulk. They fly home Saturday night, then have a one-day prep for Kennesaw State at Viejas Arena on Monday night.

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