You can call them the McNeese Cowboys, or the McNeese State University Cowboys. But, requests the athletic department of the school from Lake Charles, La., please don’t call them the McNeese State Cowboys.
Except across the front of their yellow road uniforms, where it says in white lettering with black trim … McNeese State.
Or maybe we should just call them the Washington Generals, the team that for years played the Harlem Globetrotters and forever lost to them, falling for their behind-the-back passes and between-the-legs dribbles and 40-foot lob passes for dunks. Whatever you call them, the good people from Lake Charles were chum for an angry and embarrassed San Diego State team three days removed from a 22-point humbling at Arizona State.
The 83-52 victory at Viejas Arena on Friday – it was a 31-point game in the first half – won’t reverse Tuesday night’s result in the desert, but it might restore some confidence among anxious Aztecs fans and maybe among the Aztecs themselves.
“Play harder and smarter and tougher than we did against ASU,” senior Malik Pope said.
SDSU led 9-0 and 13-2, then momentarily stuttered while the, uh, let’s just call them Cowboys pulled within 13-11 and had four possessions to tie or take the lead. Then the team in turquoise uniforms (to commemorate Native American Heritage Month) really got their frustrations out, leading 46-19 at the half after holding the visitors to 25-percent shooting and coaxing nine turnovers.
We already knew this Aztecs team could score. It made nine consecutive shots against Arizona State and dropped a 33-4 run on the Cowboys (and finished with a 22-2 advantage in fast-break points).
What we don’t know is whether it can guard anybody, which it didn’t in surrendering 90 points Tuesday (a dizzying 56 in the second half). You have to go back 11-plus seasons and 394 games to find the last time that’s happened to the Aztecs.
Granted, the team that finished last in the 13-school Southland Conference last season and is picked to finish 13th again isn’t going to provide Pac-12 caliber offense. But it was certainly a move in the right direction, not allowing regular blow-by drives from the perimeter and sliding over to help on the occasion that they happened.
“A step forward, defensively more than anything else,” coach Brian Dutcher said. “We emphasized it. Obviously, when you give up 90 points you’re going to emphasize the defense. We challenged them, talking about a level of toughness at the defensive end. You can’t just say you’re going to play tougher. What does that mean? It means: Do your job every time.
“I think they responded.”
The night’s best and scariest moments both belonged to junior point guard Devin Watson, who had 20 points, four rebounds, eight assists and only one turnover in 27 minutes.
The 19th and 20th points came on a fast-break layup that ended with the 6-foot-1 USF transfer grabbing his right leg and wincing in pain under the basket – serious-looking enough that it warranted a trip onto the floor from Dutcher.
The sigh of relief: It was merely a calf cramp and Watson, who sat out the game’s final 10 minutes, pronounced himself fine afterward.
The fearing-for-the-worst scenes with a player sprawled on the hardwood are getting old. The Aztecs (2-1) were already without junior forward Max Montana, who grotesquely hyperextended his left knee Tuesday in a way that almost always means torn ligaments. An MRI showed no structural damage, and Montana is expected to miss as little as a week or two while the swelling and soreness subside.
Healthy at last is Pope, who so far has achieving the kind of consistency absent in his first three years: 20 points and six rebounds in the opener, 14 and eight against ASU, 16 and 9 on Friday. The Aztecs were plus-36 points against the Cowboys (1-2) in his 26 minutes on the floor.
Trey Kell added 13 points, and Jeremy Hemsley had nine points on 3 of 5 shooting off the bench after going 1 of 8 in a starting role on Tuesday (freshman Matt Mitchell started instead Friday).
What still needs work?
“We have to become a better rebounding team,” said Dutcher, whose team surrendered 12 offensive rebounds to the smaller Cowboys and managed only 11 itself. “I saw that against Arizona State. There were a lot of times where we missed layups, and we’re standing there and we should have put it back in.
“We have to work on that, continue to improve that. It’s not a matter of want. It’s like anything else. If you work on things, you get better at it.”
Their next chance comes Monday night here against Eastern Illinois, and then against Sacramento State on Thanksgiving night (at, ahem, 10 p.m.) in the opener of the Wooden Legacy. It quickly gets serious, though, with Georgia the most likely opponent in the semifinals and a potential showdown against No. 21 Saint Mary’s in the Sunday night final.
The announced attendance was 10,702, which, doing the math, means more than 1,500 student tickets (of the 2,500 possible) were not claimed … The Aztecs are 4-0 in the N7 turquoise uniforms and Nikes. They also have won six straight November home games and 12 of 13 … SDSU had 18 assists against just eight turnovers … The Cowboys finished shooting 31.3 percent overall, were 3 of 20 behind the arc and had 16 turnovers … Junior wing Montaque Gill-Caesar got his first meaningful minutes of the season, finishing with four points and three rebounds in 11 minutes … Quattarius Wilson led the Cowboys with 15 points (7 of 11 shooting) and eight rebounds (five offensive).
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