“It’s embarrassing, to be honest,” Wolf Pack coach David Carter said after a 78-57 Mountain West loss to the No. 25 Aztecs in front of the largest crowd (7,924) at Lawlor this season. “To be down just one at halftime and then lose by 21, it’s real embarrassing.”
The loss is the Wolf Pack’s largest at home since a 22-point loss to Missouri State in the 2011-12 season opener on Nov. 11, 2011. It is also the Pack’s third loss at home this year in 11 games after going 16-2 at Lawlor Events Center last season.
“Nothing was going down for us,” said Pack point guard Deonte Burton, who was 2-of-11 from the field for 12 points. “It was kind of a hopeless feeling.”
The Wolf Pack trailed just 39-38 at halftime and 56-52 with 9:54 to go. The Pack, though, saw its offense dry up, scoring just five points in the final 9:54 to fall to 10-8 overall and 1-3 in the Mountain West.
“When you can’t put the ball in the basket, then you have to go on the defensive end and you get a little depressed because you’re not making shots,” Burton said.
The Wolf Pack had to play the final 6:22 without senior guard Malik Story. The Aztecs, though, by then had built a 70-52 lead thanks to a 14-0 run over the previous three minutes.
“I just got cramps all over my body,” Story said. “My whole body started cramping. I wanted to go out there and continue but my body wouldn’t let me.”
Story finished with a game-high 17 points.
“I was surprised they (Story’s cramps) lasted that long,” Carter said. “I thought he’d be able to go back in but he couldn’t.”
Without Story, the Pack never threatened to cut into the Aztecs’ double-digit lead.
“Losing Malik hurt us,” Burton said. “He was scoring for us. We missed him.”
San Diego State, which brought a two-game losing streak to Lawlor, improved to 15-4, 3-2. The Aztecs jumped all over the Pack in the first half, taking a 26-12 lead with just under six minutes to play before halftime.
"I think we did what I expected us to do," Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. "We're a veteran ball club that knows how to win. This victory started on Sunday when we started watching film (on a loss to Wyoming). We had not been practicing like a championship team should. We were better the last couple days. I'm not surprised with how we came out and played."
The Wolf Pack was surprised how it played, especially in the first 15 minutes of the first half and the last 10 minutes of the second half.
“We came out lackadaisical,” Burton said. “They got on a run and we weren’t ready.”
The Wolf Pack, though, dominated the final 5:36 of the first half. The Pack even took a 34-33 lead on a 3-pointer by Story with 1:52 to go in the half. He also drained a 3-pointer to cut the Aztecs lead to 29-24 with three minutes to go.
A lay-up by Jerry Evans gave the Pack a 38-37 lead with 15 seconds left in the half but J.J. O’Brien came right back with a lay-up of his own with two seconds to go to give the Aztecs a 39-38 halftime lead.
“We just got our intensity back,” said Evans, who had 14 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
The Wolf Pack took its final lead of the game at 40-39 on a lay-up off a pass from Burton with 19:08 to go. A 15-foot jumper by Devonte Elliott pulled the Pack into a 44-44 tie with 14:58 to go.
It was also a jumper by Elliott, at from almost the same spot at the top of the key, that cut the Aztecs’ lead to 56-52 with 9:54 to play. The Aztecs then took control of the game, holding the Pack without a point over the next 3:46.
Xavier Thames hit a 3-pointer to jump start the Aztecs’ 14-0 run. Chase Tapley also hit a three for a 68-52 lead with 7:13 to go. The Aztecs also got a dunk by Skylar Spencer and a lay-up by Winston Shepard during the game-changing run.
“We missed a lot of shots,” said Evans, referring to the Pack’s 26 per cent (6-of-23) shooting percentage in the second half. “And then they would come down and get the same shots and convert them.”
The Wolf Pack has struggled mightily in the second half of all three of their Mountain West losses to Air Force, Wyoming and San Diego State. The Pack outscored Air Force, Wyoming and San Diego State 91-86 combined in the first half and actually led two of the games (Air Force and Wyoming) at the break. The second half, though, was a different story as the Pack was dominated 129-79 in the three games combined.
“We just have to come out in the second half with the same intensity we have in the first half,” Evans said.
Carter also wasn’t happy with the Pack’s defense, which allowed 39 points in each half and saw the Aztecs shoot 54 per cent for the game.
“They took advantage of our inexperience a little bit,” Carter said. “We had a lot of blown assignments. But because of foul trouble we had to play some young guys like Cole Huff and Ali Fall so we had some lineups out there we wouldn’t normally have. And that hurt us.”
“We had a lot of mental breakdowns,” Story said.
The Aztecs also did a nice job on Burton, especially after Story started to cramp up.
“They kind of focused on me a lot more,” Burton said. “And when Malik went out they really focused on me. But I was just trying to make plays for my teammates.”
"We did a better job keeping Burton from getting to the rim and guarding Story without fouling him," Fisher said. "We were better on the ball and off the ball."
Each team’s top three scorers scored 17 (Story, Tapley), 14 (Evans, Jamaal Franklin) and 12 points (Burton, O’Brien. The difference was everybody else. The Aztecs’ bench outscored the Pack bench, 25-10. No other Pack player scored more than four points while San Diego State got nine points from Shepard and eight points from Thames off the bench.
“Other guys have to step up and we just couldn’t do it,” Burton said.
“Other guys have to make plays,” Carter said.