ANAHEIM, Calif. “”mdash; San Diego State ran the show on and off the court at the John Wooden Classic on Saturday night.
The raucous Aztec student section, known as The Show, helped propel its team to a 78-69 win tonight over UCLA at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
The Show, and the rest of the SDSU fans, vastly outnumbered those clad in Bruin blue and gold and created a deafening atmosphere.
“I’m very, very, very proud first off with our crowd,” SDSU coach Steve Fisher said. “They have allowed us to grow our program and they displayed that tonight. Our alums and our students have something to cheer about and they are in mass, in force and doing just that.”
In a game meant to honor the legendary UCLA coach, the Bruins faced a hostile environment.
“It was like playing a road game in a white jersey, which you don’t do too often,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said.
With Saturday night’s win over the Bruins, the Aztecs have now won 26 consecutive games against California teams ““ strong evidence to support their claim as the state’s top team.
But even after losing to SDSU, which has been to two more NCAA tournaments than UCLA in the past three years, Howland declined to put the Aztecs at the top of the California totem pole.
When asked if SDSU was the best program in the state, Howland said coyly, “That’s a big statement to make.”
The game remained close throughout the first half, with seven lead changes, before the Bruins headed into the halftime tunnels down by two points.
After establishing and holding a narrow lead in the first two minutes of the second half, SDSU roared back emphatically. The Aztecs broke down the Bruin zone defense, hitting 6 of 12 three pointers in the second half.
UCLA responded by switching to man-to-man defense, which SDSU also exposed weaknesses in on its way to building a 12-point lead with about six and a half minutes to play.
“Our zone got tortured by by their three-point shooting,” Howland said. “We had miscommunications and breakdowns in our responsibilities in zone.
“We went to man just to try and switch things up because we weren’t getting any stops in our zone. … (Aztec junior guard Xavier) Thames got two wide open threes and it was a simple mistake that we can’t afford to make. But they did a good job attacking our man and our zone in the second half.”
Thames would finish the night missing only a single attempt from behind the arc en route to scoring 19 points.
The Bruins came back to bring the game within five with two minutes to play, but the hole they had dug was too deep, as the Aztecs nailed 9 of 10 free throws down that stretch to put the game out of reach.
Howland admitted that SDSU’s energetic squad was able to win most of the loose, 50/50 balls in the second half.
It didn’t help that the Bruins only had a seven-man rotation. Freshman center Tony Parker did not dress out for the game and sat in sweats on the bench after spraining his ankle against Cal State Northridge on Wednesday.
Even highly-touted freshman guard Shabazz Muhammad couldn’t save the day for the Bruins, as he is still working to get into game shape after missing the first three games of the season.
“I’m not really comfortable out there still,” Muhammad said. “I’ve been losing a lot of weight and running a lot so I’m just continuing to do that.”
Muhammad and freshman guard Jordan Adams led the Bruins offensively, together scoring 39 of the team’s 69 points, but Aztec junior forward Jamaal Franklin led all scorers with 28 points.
When asked about the matchup against UCLA and its highly-touted freshman class, Franklin said, “A lot of bigger schools are always worrying about draft stock. … Us, we just want to worry about winning.”
That focus has paid off for the Aztecs.
When asked if he believed SDSU to be the best program in California, Franklin didn’t shy away from the question.
“Yes,” he said. “I feel like we did a lot to earn that respect from a lot of California teams.”