Aztecs put it together vs. Georgetown, set up clash with USC – The San Diego Union-Tribune

ANAHEIM — 

San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher keeps saying his basketball team will be good, he just doesn’t know when.

How about now?

The Aztecs shot well, defended well, got contributions across the roster and didn’t fold when Georgetown made a run to beat a big, talented Hoyas team 73-56 in the opening game of the Wooden Legacy before a partisan crowd at Anaheim Arena late on Thanksgiving night.

The key word in all that might be Thanksgiving. The Aztecs have a knack for not playing like turkeys in Thanksgiving week tournaments, improving to 22-6 since 2008 against many of college basketball’s top programs.

Thanksgiving tournament, Big East, neutral court … it’s a delectable menu for the Aztecs. This was their sixth straight win against opponents in the Big East at the time (the longest active streak in the nation) and improved their record to 10-2 on neutral courts over the last three seasons.

Now they get No. 24-ranked USC, which handled Saint Joseph’s of Philadelphia 70-55 in the night’s first game behind 17 points from Mission Bay High alum Boogie Ellis. Tip-off is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Friday on ESPN2, although the game against Georgetown tipped about 15 minutes before the projected start.

They had to know this was the night when all those shots that didn’t fall in the first four games suddenly did. Nathan Mensah won the opening tip against 7-foot Timothy Ighoefe, Matt Bradley drove hard left and fired a cross-court pass to Lamont Butler, who launched a 3 that hit the rim once, twice, three times before dropping.

There also was an Adam Seiko 3 at the halftime buzzer that hit the back rim, bounced above the backboard and rattled in.

They would finish 7 of 16 behind the arc (43.8 percent) after entering the game ranked 342nd in Division I at 24.6 percent and shooting 40.1 percent overall.

The Hoyas? They were making 41.5 percent of their 3s, good for 21st nationally, and shot 4 of 20 against the Aztecs.

But it wasn’t just 3s. The Aztecs had two “SportsCenter”-worthy dunks in the second half: a flying two-handed follow on the break by Aguek Arop over a pair of Hoyas, and a one-handed windmill after taking off just inside the free-throw line by Keshad Johnson.

Arop’s dunk gave the Aztecs a 15-point lead, but it was only a matter of minutes before the Hoyas closed to four and had a 3-point attempt by Dante Harris rattle in and out.

But Trey Pulliam made a jumper in the lane, Johnson snatched a long rebound and raced down court for his freakish dunk, and Keith Dinwiddie drained a 3 from the left wing — 64-53, Aztecs. It was approaching 2 a.m. on the body clocks of Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas; they’d had enough for the night. They didn’t make a basket over the game’s final 9:39.

Cal transfer Bradley finally found an offensive rhythm with his new team and finished with 18 points and seven rebounds while playing in freshman Demarshay Johnson’s No. 11 because his No. 3 jersey was left in San Diego.

Butler, who shot 29 percent behind the arc last season, went 3 of 3 from deep and had 16 points despite playing only 20 minutes because of foul trouble. Mensah didn’t have a big night offensively (four points, 1 of 5 shooting) but had six rebounds and blocked four shots. Arop played only 14 minutes but the Aztecs were plus-18 with him on the floor.

There was a wind storm outside Anaheim Arena, with palm trees whipping in the night air, but it was calm inside and the Aztecs took advantage, shooting (pause here for a gasp) 54.8 percent in the first half. They also surrendered eight offensive rebounds, forced only five turnovers and allowed Harris and freshman Aminu Mohammed to combine for 27 points in the first half.

Georgetown’s problem: The rest the team had five.

There were six ties and four lead changes in the half before closed with a 14-4 run capped by a pair of Seiko jumpers in the final minute.

Bradley led SDSU with 11 points at intermission, which you might expect. Portland transfer Tahirou Diabate was next with eight, which you might not. That’s six more than he scored in the first three games as an Aztec, and he sat out last Saturday’s game against UT Arlington with an illness.

But he was called on early after starting center Mensah picked up two quick fouls, and he responded with put-backs off offensive rebounds and rolling hard to the basket off ball screens in nine effective minutes. That also allowed Dutcher to keep Mensah on the bench until the second half.