LOS ANGELES — The score on the Los Angeles college basketball scoreboard Sunday night was telling: Little guys 2, Pac-12 0.
Shortly after an unranked Cal Poly team toppled No. 11 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, No. 25 San Diego State survived a second-half scare from USC to win 66-60 at the Galen Center.
While San Diego State and USC wasn’t exactly a David vs. Goliath matchup, it showed a lot about the Aztecs, who will move from the Mountain West Conference back to the Big West next season, and what the conference will look like with a team of SDSU’s caliber.
The Aztecs (4-1), who led by as many as 20 points in the first half, showed resolve and tenacity as that lead collapsed and changed 10 times before SDSU finally put the Trojans (3-3) away for good in the final minute of play.
“I’m really proud of the togetherness, toughness and character of this team,” said Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher. “We don’t quit, we stayed with it and we found a way, when they had all the momentum in their building, to make a play here, make a stop there and win the game.
“This was a terrific win for us.”
James Rahon played a key role for the Aztecs with a season-high 17 points. More importantly, he went 6-for-7 from the field was perfect with three triples from behind the arc, hitting several shots down the closing stretch.
“He played like a fifth-year senior,” Fisher said. “He played confident, he played under control and he’s ecstatic about how he played and so am I.”
Jamaal Franklin came just shy of a double-double with 17 points and nine boards. Xavier Thames and J.J. O’Brien balanced out the offense with 14 and 12 points each.
Eric Wise led the Trojans with 14 points. Dewayne Dedmon added seven and led the Trojans on the boards with 11.
The first and second halves were almost two completely different games. The Aztecs dominated the first half only to have the Trojans come out in the second with a new fire. But it was that same fire that led to two technical fouls in the closing stretch that allowed the Aztecs to push the game out of reach.
“We had a couple of dumb plays at the end,” said USC guard Jio Fontan. “When you put yourself that deep in a hole, you’ve got to come back harder.”
“We had our chances,” said head coach Kevin O’Neill. “But you can’t shoot 11-of-20 from the line and you can’t be immature… We gave in to things at the end that hurt us.”
USC opened up cold, shooting just 25.8 percent in the opening frame. The Trojans made a late charge with a 10-4 run but was still down 35-23 at the intermission.
“They missed every shot they took, even the good ones,” Fisher said.
A big momentum shift swung the game in the direction of the Trojans in the second half.
Just under five minutes in, the Trojans had come back to within just six points at 37-31. After keeping alive a long possession, Dedmon finally capped that run with a tip-in jam to further cut SDSU’s lead to just 37-34.
USC then pushed it outside with Ari Stewart burying a corner three and a Wise fooling his defender with a step-back jumper that gave USC its first lead of the game, 41-39.
“We got tired mentally,” Fisher said. “And it led to us doing some uncharacteristic things with our defense that gave them an opportunity that they exposed.”
From that point on, both teams played with a heightened sense of urgency. The Aztecs made every possession an all out battle, trying to out-physical the Trojans. The Trojans responded with deft shooting and the contest remained close throughout. The game also began to get more and more tense with the situation nearly erupting in the final minutes of play.
With The Aztecs up 56-55, Fontan fouled Franklin and Omar Oraby was whistled for an ensuing technical foul. Xavier Thames hit both foul shots and Franklin went 1-for-2 at the line.
“That was a big play,” O’Neill said. “The immaturity of the emotional stuff, you can’t overcome that against a good team. That’s unacceptable.”
With just 35 seconds left, Byron Wesley laid out Franklin with a clothesline-style move. The benches nearly cleared as the two teams had to be broken up on the floor. J.T. Terrell made one shot from the stripe for USC on the technical foul but Franklin sunk both of his to give the Aztecs the definitive lead.
“That’s just two competitive teams trying to win,” Franklin said. “After this game, we’re still going to have friends on this team but it’s just two competitive teams wanting to win.”
The win gave the Aztecs their 25th-straight over California teams, which is the longest such streak in Division I. To keep the streak alive, they will have to contend with the Bruins, who are now looking a little less formidable, and a slew of Golden State teams in conference play next season. No doubt, San Diego State will have a target on its back but its one that should bring more attention to the burgeoning Big West.
“Coach actually said it in his pregame speech,” Rahon said. “It’s a pretty good stat and we hope to keep continuing that streak.”