SAN DIEGO — In the battle of two struggling teams that met last March for the Mountain West tournament championship, only one team Tuesday night looked like it was even remotely capable of returning to that level.
Another night of awful University of New Mexico defense allowed the San Diego State Aztecs to break out of their mini slump, beating the visiting Lobos 97-77 in front of an announced crowd of 10,277 in Viejas Arena.
Since blowing out then-No. 6 Nevada in Dreamstyle Arena – The Pit on Jan. 5, the Lobos (8-9, 2-3 Mountain West) have lost three consecutive games, all by double figures and all with agonizingly consistent results against the same zone defense that looked like it might be what would turn their season around when it stymied the Wolf Pack.
On Tuesday, Aztecs sophomore star Jalen McDaniels scored a game-high 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds. His scoring onslaught was consistently the result of getting fed the ball in the high post in the hole in the middle of UNM’s zone, hitting 12-foot jumper after 12-foot jumper or driving down the lane with ease.
SDSU (10-7, 2-2 MWC ) scored 50 points in the paint against the Lobos, 30 in the first half.
And when the Lobos did adjust to stop that, senior guard Devin Watson (21 points) went off in the second half with five of the Aztecs’ eight second-half 3-pointers en route to a 53-point half for the home team.
SDSU had five players score in double figures, shot 55.1 percent from the field and outrebounded UNM 38-25.
The Lobos were led by Anthony Mathis, who, per his coaches’ instruction, was anything but timid on offense in the first half. He scored 13 of his team-high 21 points in the first half on 4-for-4 from 3-point range (he ended 6-of-10 from beyond the arc).
The difference in the paint told the story, and not just with the Lobos’ inability to protect it.
To start the second half, the Lobos got the ball in the post to junior Carlton Bragg on the first possession for an easy layup, cutting the lead to 44-41.
Watson scored nine consecutive SDSU points after that, all on 3s, and then McDaniels scored 11 straight for the Aztecs, who at one point in the second half led by as many as 26 points.