BOISE, Idaho — This was supposed to be the one.
The one where San Diego State let down after an emotional net-cutting ceremony Tuesday night to celebrate the Mountain West title.
The one where the Aztecs had an off-shooting day against a veteran, hungry team that had won six of its last seven.
The one in the arena where they had dropped three straight and were blown out by 24 last year.
The one where, finally, they lost.
The Aztecs basketball team that continues to confound continued to roll, methodically brushing aside Boise State with the nonchalance of a snowplow clearing University Drive, building a 19-point lead early in the second half and winning 72-55.
SDSU players like to tweet “Lock in” before every game.
They were locked in.
So the fourth-ranked Aztecs improve to 26-0 overall and 15-0 in a conference that they clinched five days earlier. Now only three games stand between them and the first undefeated season in the Mountain West’s 21-year history — home against UNLV and Colorado State, and at Nevada in the regular-season finale.
“I just think we have that dog in us, we just have that dog,” Matt Mitchell said. “I’m really a true believer in that. Every guy, one through 15 on this team, we’re just all dogs and we want to go get it.”
All five starters scored in double figures: Malachi Flynn with 22, Yanni Wetzell with 14, Jordan Schakel with 12, Mitchell with 11 and KJ Feagin with 10.
The Aztecs shot 55.6 percent, just short of their season-best 58.2% in the 85-57 win at New Mexico. The Broncos (17-10, 9-6) were under 40% until a couple garbage-time baskets in the final minute put them at 41.2 and finished with a season-low 55 points (and 22 below their average).
The Aztecs also had 11 steals, a career-high five by Mitchell, to match their season best. They had 16 assists against eight turnovers, compared to seven and 15 by Boise State.
That’s a pretty good recipe for winning in a hostile environment on the road.
“They answer the call, they’re smart, they want to win, they don’t want to lose,” coach Brian Dutcher said of his team. “I put on the (locker room) board: Play together, stay together.’ This team doesn’t overreact to things. I told them Boise would have a run in them. I mean, they came from 18 down againt Utah State with four minutes to go (and won in overtime).
“When they put their run together, the comments in the timeout were: ‘Just keep taking your shot. We can’t turn down open shots.’ This team doesn’t play cautious. They want to play aggressive all the way through … They have a demeanor about them that doesn’t get stressed when things don’t go well. They stayed focused and play the right way, and they’ve been rewarded for that.”
Referee David Hall worked the Washington at UCLA game Saturday night, then drove to San Diego to catch an 8 a.m. nonstop to Boise that arrived in time for the 2 p.m. Mountain time tip.
It looked like Hall and his crew had to catch an evening flight to their next stop, the way things were going early on. There was exactly one whistle — for out of bounds — in the opening 10 minutes and no fouls whistled for the first 12-plus minutes.
That was good news for the Aztecs, who have struggled with early foul trouble of late and don’t have as much scoring punch off their bench since Mitchell moved into the starting lineup. Five times in the previous seven conference games, they had three players with at least two fouls in the first half.
This time: two total fouls.
That allowed Dutcher to stick with his starters longer, playing them an average of 15.8 minutes in the opening 20.
And that kept more offensive weapons on the floor against a Broncos defense that is allowing just under 70 points per game and ranks eighth in the Mountain West defensive field-goal percentage.
The Aztecs parlayed that into a 40-26 halftime lead behind 58.6-percent shooting overall and 6 of 13 behind the arc. The most telling numbers were further across the box score. SDSU had nine assists and three turnovers; Boise State had two and four.
The Broncos did, however, have the most spectacular basket.
Derrick Alston Jr.’s father, the coach of the G League’s Westchester Knicks, took advantage of the NBA All-Star Break to fly to Boise to see his son play in person for the first time since high school. And Boise State’s first points came when Junior pump-faked Wetzell into the air at the top of the key, dipped under him, threw the ball off the backboard, caught it and tipped it in.
It was all Aztecs after that. When the Broncos trimmed a nine-point deficit to four, Wetzell made a left-handed hook in traffic to quiet the near-sellout in ExtraMile Arena. That was followed by a 3 from Schakel and floater by Flynn to push the margin into double figures. Wetzell added an exclamation point just before the halftime buzzer with an offensive rebound put-back.
Boise State managed an 8-0 run against SDSU’s subs to close to 50-40 midway through the second half. Dutcher calmly called timeout and sent the starters back, and soon the margin was back to 18.
The plus-minus figures of the starters when they were on the floor: plus-17, plus-17, plus-18, plus-25 and Feagin’s plus-28. The bench: zero, minus-4, minus-5, minus-11.
In all, Dutcher used his bench only 32 of a possible 200 minutes.
“They’re playing so well, it’s hard to sit them down,” Dutcher said of the starting five. “It’s not that I don’t have faith in the bench, but (the starters) are just playing at an elite level.”
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