FRESNO, Calif. — Your move, Auburn.
Seventh-ranked San Diego State moved to 18-0 and remained one of two undefeated teams in Division I with a hard, gritty, walk-it-up, grind-it-out 64-55 victory at Fresno State on Tuesday night, completing a merciless stretch of road games that took them over a mountain pass in Utah, to the high plains of Wyoming and then to California’s Central Valley on short rest.
Now the Aztecs come home and get to watch No. 5 Auburn, the other unbeaten, sweat it out on the road at Alabama (Wednesday) and Florida (Saturday). When SDSU hosts Nevada on Saturday night at Viejas Arena, it could be the nation’s only team with a 0 in the loss column.
This was the game that privately scared the coaching staff the most, knowing what it came after and that a hungry, healthy Fresno State team had a full week to prepare compared to one full practice for SDSU, knowing it was in a building where the Aztecs were 1-4 in their last five trips.
And it was all of that inside six minutes to go, with the Bulldogs closing to six and what fans showed up for the 8 p.m. tip on their feet roaring.
But just like that, the momentum flipped. The magic returned. The mojo resumed.
Malachi Flynn drew a foul on a 3-pointer and made all three free throws — remaining perfect from the line in 2020. Then 6-foot-10 Yanni Wetzell beat everyone down the floor and spun in a reverse layup. Then Flynn snuck behind Fresno State forward Orlando Robinson for a steal and a fast-break layup.
That pushed the margin to 13, the game’s largest, and a veteran Aztecs team shooting 83% from the line away from home wasn’t going to let win No. 18 slip away.
It wasn’t their most beautiful or most dominant win, but maybe their most courageous — coming on a night when they didn’t have an offensive rebound for the first 30 minutes, went 3 of 18 behind the 3-point arc, got zero points from Jordan Schakel for the first time all season and looked like they missed sidelined sophomore center Nathan Mensah.
Flynn had 22 points on 7 of 14 shooting and 7 of 7 from the line, meaning he has now made all 25 attempts in 2020. Wetzell also shot 7 of 14 and had 17 points. Matt Mitchell had 10 points before fouling out.
Fresno State (5-12, 1-5) got 18 points from forward Orlando Robinson, bolstering his case for Mountain West freshman of the year. New Williams added 15, but Nate Grimes and Jarred Hyder had six together — 18 under their combined averages as the Bulldogs shot 36.4 percent.
The game went the way you expected between two defensive-minded coaching staffs that had played 13 days earlier. They knew each other’s plays, and the counters, and the counters to the counters.
Neither team led by more than five points in a first half in which Fresno State shot 28.6% and SDSU was 2 of 12 behind the arc. The Aztecs had a 26-21 advantage at the break because its defense was slightly more suffocating, allowing the Bulldogs to score on only three of their 15 final possessions and none of the last eight.
The Fresno State team that SDSU faced on New Year’s Day at Viejas Arena, though, looked different than the one on the floor Tuesday night. The Bulldogs started their 11th different starting lineup after getting back Grimes and Noah Blackwell off the injured list (although both were on minutes restrictions) but then losing Aguir Agau to a concussion.
The Bulldogs also had a familiar face wearing No. 5. Jordan Campbell originally planned to be wearing an Aztecs uniform, committing to SDSU out of Adelanto High two years ago after being mentored by fellow High Desert product Jamaal Franklin. “Glad to be a part of a family I was kinda born in,” he tweeted at the time.
But Campbell asked for a release from his letter of intent when the coaches who had primarily recruited him were hired at Fresno State in the spring of 2018, Justin Hutson as head coach and Tim Shelton as his assistant. The athletic 6-foot-3 guard didn’t rule out re-pledging to SDSU, but coach Brian Dutcher sent this shot across his bow: “We just won our 11th conference championship and have been to the NCAA Tournament seven of the last nine years with players who want to be a part of the San Diego State culture.”
Instead, Campbell went to Oregon State. He lasted six games before transferring to Fresno State at the semester break, making him eligible this season as soon as fall semester grades were posted. That was mid-December for most other midseason transfers across the nation, but Fresno State waited until last week to clear him. He made his Bulldogs debut against New Mexico, playing 29 minutes and finishing with eight points on a rusty 2 of 14 shooting.
Campbell was better Tuesday, scoring seven quick points after subbing in for the first time and finishing with 11 but on 5 of 15 shooting.
©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune