Picking up its first road win of the season, the CSU men’s basketball team defeated the San Diego State Aztecs Saturday by doing something it had struggled to do all year: make free throws.
The Rams finally found their stroke from the line, making 18-of-21 free throws, including four in the final minute of the game to seal the 72-69 victory. The win moves the Rams (14-5 overall, 3-1 Mountain West Conference) into a three-way tie for second place in the conference, and also gives them as many conference wins as they had all of last year.
“I’ve got a headache, I’m sweating, but boy, it feels good,” Rams’ head coach
Dale Layer said in a post-game radio interview. “I think our defensive effort was huge, especially in the second half. Our 11 blocked shots were easily the difference. But what a huge defensive effort controlling the paint? We had great courage.”
With under 10 seconds left in the game and the Rams up by three points, San Diego’s State’s Deandre Moore heaved a three-pointer that would have tied the game, but CSU guard Micheal Morris blocked the shot, grabbed the rebound and sprinted down court to end the contest. It was Morris’ fifth block of the game, and the freshman continues to lead both the Rams and the entire conference in blocked shots.
“On the road, you have to make big plays to keep the crowd out of it. If not, you’re not going to win on the road,” Morris said in a post-game radio interview. “Coach puts his faith in me when the game’s in crunch time and I have to settle down and run our team throughout the whole game. But it seems like whenever it gets down to the last two minutes, I want the ball in my hands.”
But what ultimately won the game for the Rams was their performance at the free-throw line. Going into Saturday’s game, CSU had been shooting a dismal 52 percent from the line in conference play.
“Our free throws have been so poor,” Layer said. “We’ve shot so many after practice, probably 1,400 or 1,500 extra free throws this week. We shot them every which way; we made up games, had contests and did just about everything we could to work on our free throws. When you start making them, you get confident, and that’s kind of what happened down the stretch.”
Matt Nelson led all scorers for the Rams with a game-high 21 points, shooting 9-of-10 from the field and had six rebounds. The Aztecs, just like the Rams, had three players score in double-digits and were led by senior guard Tony Bland, who scored 19 points.
The two teams stayed neck-and-neck throughout most of the game and there were 16 lead changes before the Rams took the lead for good with 9:12 remaining on a Nelson dunk.
Continuing their road trip, the Rams will play in Las Vegas tonight in another important conference game.
“Las Vegas is arguably the most talented team in our league and they’re struggling and I don’t know why,” Layer said. “I know their first five is easily as talented or more talented than anyone we’ve faced all year, they just haven’t quite put it together yet and hopefully they won’t do it by Monday.”