The Anteaters were eager to rebound from their shocking OT loss to Long Beach last weekend. They immediately came in and knocked the home team on their heels. While both teams shot poorly, four or five Anteaters camped under the basket to contest every rebound. Their aggressive play earned them several trips to the line en route to an early 9-2 lead. In a somewhat surprising move, Nate Harris started the game while Spencer Nelson sat on the bench with mask in place. Unlike last week when Nate owned the baseline, the Anteaters did an excellent job denying anything inside and forcing Nate to take some ill-advised shots. The Aggies formerly spectacular outside shooting was still MIA as several Aggies missed wide open three point shots in rhythm with feet planted.
Spencer eventually entered the game and immediately changed the tone on defense. While he struggled with his mask's placement and clearly looked winded at times, Spencer effectively denied most entry passes to Parada and Zuzak. Even then, the Aggies trailed for much of the first half. Eventually, they clawed their way back into the game by playing solid defense and causing turnovers. The Anteaters became disorganized, even suffering two straight shot clock violations. The Aggies eventually tied the game and defended Irvine's last shot attempt of the half. Stew Morrill called timeout to draw up the last play with about 25 seconds remaining. Unfortunately, the Anteaters defended the play well and forced Nate to put up a tough shot as time expired. The teams went into their respective locker rooms with a 22-all tie.
During halftime, Coach Stew must've brought in a priest to perform an exorcism on Cardell Butler. Cardell had been struggling mightily after leading the Aggies with 19 points against Cal State Northridge. Cardell hit a key three point shot and made a pair of free throws in the first half. But he came out and immediately dominated on the offensive end early in the second half. He finally found his three point shot, eventually shooting over 50% from beyond the arc for the game. His outside shooting opened up the middle for Spencer to go to work, after the Anteaters collapsed inside for much of the first half. Spencer eventually collected 10 rebounds and narrowly missed a double double.
At near the 10 minute mark of the second half, the Aggies owned a 15 point lead. The Anteaters were in complete disarray, and Pat Douglass called several timeouts to get his team refocused. Recent history between these teams suggests that no lead is safe for long, and eventually the Aggies needed all but three of those points to hold off the inevitable Anteater run. A key point came when Cardell caused a turnover. A couple of Irvine defenders got back on defense, forcing Cardell to take an ill-advised 16 foot shot which missed. The Anteaters came back and made a three point play, causing a five point swing from what could've been a 17 point lead to a 12 point edge. The Aggies went into their "Prevent Offense" mode and went without a field goal for more than seven minutes. A five second call and the Anteater's commanding advantage on the offensive glass got them back into the game. Gloger hit a near three-point shot and Efevberha hit from long range to open up the middle for Adam Parada to go to work. Parada torched the Aggie forwards for three straight baskets down low to cut the lead to three with under three minutes to go.
After Cardell got hot early in the half, the Anteater defense adjusted and limited his touches. Then he got free and shot a three point dagger worthy of Jerry Green. The Aggies then played stellar defense and Chris Huber was fouled underneath on a rebound try. He hit one of two free throws to push the lead to seven. The Anteaters had the ball with about 45 seconds remaining. Nate stole the ball, took it all the way on the other end, missed a lay-up, Cardell missed another lay-up. Then Nate tipped it in for the final margin of victory.
There were many areas where the Aggies looked uncharacteristically bad. The field goal shooting was the most egregious, considering they led the country in FG percentage going in. The Aggies eventually shot about 35%, but really struggled especially in the first half. The Anteaters had a decided height advantage at every position, with the disparity between Jeff Gloger and Mark Brown being the most glaring. Gloger has established himself as the premier point guard in the Big West, and arguably one of the best rebounding point guards in the country. Mark was handicapped on the defensive end and couldn't box out Gloger on the glass. The Anteaters had their way with rebounds on both ends. Although the rebounding edge narrowed throughout the game, the Anteaters' ability to crash the boards kept them in the game and gave them many of their scoring opportunities.
After starting out sluggish on both ends, the Aggies shined defensively in key stretches. They greatly limited Parada's touches and held him to only nine points, many of those on second chance put-backs. Irvine struggled to control the ball in the face of the Aggie pressure, and coughed it up several times. The Aggies had a decided edge in steals. While Irvine played decent transition defense, there were several key times when an Aggie player got free. Chris Huber's early breakaway lay-up seemed to awaken the Aggies and got them going.
After leading the Aggies to two impressive road wins last week, Nate struggled mightily tonight. He was in early foul trouble, with many of those fouls occurring away from the ball as he tried to establish position. He eventually scored 12, including a three point play near the end that got him smiling and confident again.
The player of the game was Cardell Butler hands down. After being essentially a non-factor for five halves of basketball, Cardell came out on fire in the second half and led the Aggies to a big lead. If he can bring his show on the road, the Aggies will be very tough to stop.
The Smith Spectrum crowd tonight was excellent. Over 9000 showed up and made a lot of noise, even when the Aggies struggled early. The crowd had a lot of energy. While the Anteaters were clearly not fazed by the crowd and the atmosphere, the Aggies got several emotional lifts from the crowd. Along with everyone else, I praise the effort of Tyler Olsen and others to get the crowd wearing blue. It was a most impressive sight.
Only one question remains: When are we going to do the "Stew" chant?
Aggies overcome Anteaters
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