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On the heels of a heartbreaking collapse up in Wyoming over the weekend, Colorado State responded in a major way on Tuesday night.
Going up against the class of the Mountain West, the league’s most consistent program over the last 15 years and a team that is coming off a National Championship appearance, CSU came out and executed at an extremely high level in the 79-71 win over San Diego State.
“I had a hard time not getting emotional in the locker room,” Niko Medved said after the win. “It’s been an interesting 72 hours to say the least.”
Medved continued, explaining that the overtime loss in Laramie was the most gut wrenching game he’s ever been a part of. So for the guys to be able to handle the challenges of that and proceed to play the way they did against SDSU, it really speaks to their character.
Nobody turned on each other. Nobody hung their heads and sulked. After a little fun in the sun, including a team kickball game on Sunday, the Rams did what they always do. They got back to work.
“They showed exactly who they are,” Medved said. “And they always do. But it’s just such a great life lesson for them to be able to do that and respond the way that they did. They handled it beautifully.”
The Rams trailed for all of just 16 seconds on the night and really performed well on both ends of the floor throughout.
SDSU did briefly take a 61-60 lead with about seven and a half minutes remaining. Just as quickly as they took the lead, though, the Aztecs saw it disappear in front of the fourth sellout crowd of the season for CSU.
Patrick Cartier responded with a layup on the other end, which was the start of a 9-0 CSU run over the ensuing three minutes of action. And by the 4:09 mark of the second half, after battling all the way back, the Aztecs were in the exact same 8-point deficit that they began the half with.
As you would expect from a world class program with extremely talented veterans, SDSU continued to battle and managed to stay within striking distance in the final minutes. But any time that the Aztecs would try to make a final run, the Rams were right there with a big defensive stop to seal the deal.
“We just buckled right back up and did what we needed to do,” Medved said. “It’s as good of a win as we’ve had and I just couldn’t be prouder of this group of young men.”
Here are some more takeaways from the crucial bounce-back win.
Starters stepped up
The starting five really played a tremendous game Tuesday night.
Nique Clifford and Isaiah Stevens were the stars of the show with a combined 40 points on 64 percent shooting. They also combined for 13 rebounds, 11 assists and seven steals in what were a couple of phenomenal performances, respectively.
As good as those guys were — and they truly were lights out in this one — it should also be pointed out that the Rams don’t win this game without some of the big plays made by the other guys on the floor.
Josiah Strong, for example, was +18 on the night with 10 points, three rebounds and a pair of assists. His biggest plays of the game, though, might have been his block on Lamont Butler as the Aztecs attempted to rally in the final minutes. He also had a nice strip that led to a transition layup for Stevens.
Joel Scott was a major factor defensively all night and a big reason why the Rams held the Aztecs to just 22 points in the paint. But it was his aggressive mindset on offense that really aided CSU in closing out the win.
Over the final five minutes of the game, Scott scored 8 points, got to the line multiple times and arguably put the final nail in SDSU’s coffin with a massive 3-pointer just seconds after taking a shot to the face. Stretching the floor may not be what the former DII star is known for, but when opposing defenses are daring him to shoot, Scott showed on Tuesday that he just might burn you with a couple from deep.
“I think that was the dagger right there,” Stevens said of Scott’s big shot. “He was patient. He shot it with confidence. It was a strong ball off the back rim, so you know he let it rip.”
“I just love the way he’s playing when he’s aggressive and has a chip on his shoulder,” Medved added later. “We need that.”
Hot start was crucial
You knew this was going to be a game that likely came down to the closing minutes. Whenever CSU and SDSU face off in Moby Arena, it’s pretty much always a thriller.
After slow starts had plagued this team for weeks, it was relieving to see the Rams come out and set the tone early though; especially considering what went down just a few days prior.
It’s an exhausting process constantly having to play from behind. When you can find a little confidence early and also get the fans engaged from the get-go, it makes such a massive difference in these tight conference matchups.
The Rams set the tone defensively
It’s never easy trying to defend a team that has as many capable veterans as SDSU.
You really have to give credit to the Rams for the way they pressured ball handlers, effectively sent help to the post and just generally made the Aztecs work hard for everything they got. SDSU stepped up and hit some big-time shots, particularly from beyond the arc.
The fact that CSU was able to record more steals and blocks than a program that is nationally renowned for its defense, though, tells you what you need to know about the effort of the Rams this one.
They were physical, they were locked in, and they defended at a high level without racking up a bunch of cheap fouls.
If you have not learned the lesson by now, nothing comes easy in the Mountain West.
The Rams did what they needed to in a crucial home game. Now they need to do the same out on the road against Fresno State Saturday night.