SAN JOSE — It was evident 90 minutes before the game where each team’s minds were at.

On one end of the court stood the No. 19 San Diego State Aztecs. On a six-game winning streak, the Aztecs were loose. A flurry of 360 dunks and 30-foot 3-pointers was the pregame warmup diet of choice for the team that was in the National Championship game just a year ago.

On the other end stood the San Jose State Spartans. A team who has been reeling of late that fumbled two second-half leads to start conference play 0-2. SJSU looked tight in warmups, not a smile or a playful expression as the team went through layup lines.

The game was a battle San Diego State didn’t expect, but in the end it was the Aztecs who escaped what would have been one of the biggest upsets of the season. Despite 21 points from Alvaro Cardenas and 20 points from Myron Amey Jr., the Spartans fell 81-78.

“I told our guys I was very proud of them,” said SJSU coach Tim Miles. “I thought they followed the game plan, adjusted when we needed to. They did it with eagerness and did it with aggression. They kept sharing the ball even when they made mistakes.”

It was evident early on that San Diego State was just levels ahead of SJSU athletically. It didn’t matter if it was a put-back dunk or a tipped passed, there was a sense in the arena that an explosive play was about to happen. The crowd, one that was 70% Aztec fans, was chopping at the bit to erupt at the next SportsCenter worthy highlight.

To their credit, the Spartans kept the game close early on. When the Aztecs went on a 7-0 run to take a 23-16 lead in the first, the Spartans didn’t fold. Instead, they got just enough stops and trailed 42-41 at halftime.

For a while, it felt like San Diego State was going to go on its usual second half run and blow out the Spartans.

But it didn’t happen.

The game was back and forth until the final 12 seconds when head coach Tim Miles set up a play to get Trey Anderson the final shot to tie the game at 80. Anderson got a good look,  but an athletic recovery from Aztec forward Jay Pal resulted in a block off the glass and the end for the Spartans comeback bid.

Tuesday night was the 12 consecutive win San Diego State has had over SJSU. The Aztecs are 18-1 all-time against the Spartans with their only loss coming in 2017.

SJSU’s loss will no doubt be a flashpoint of the season.

With three conference losses in a row coming in heartbreak fashion, will SJSU turn it around against Air Force and Fresno State in its next two games? Or will the Spartans’ emotional motor run out of juice as they get further into Mountain West play?

When asked if tonight was a moral victory for SJSU, Cardenas said, “Not in my eyes.”

“We feel like we’re capable of winning every game. We’re in every game, so no moral victories for me at least.”

Though Amey agreed, he said there were positives that he took coming out of the last three losses.

“It just means there’s more reason to keep our head up,” Amey said. “We just gotta finish games.”

Miles and his coaching staff will have some soul searching to do as well in the next couple of days. Starting center Adrame Diongue was the only starter who didn’t play more than 35 minutes Tuesday. He shared his minutes with fellow big men William Humer and Diogo Seixas.

It was clear on the floor that the Spartans struggled without a consistent big in the lineup. San Diego State forward Jaedon LeDee scored a game-high 31 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

The lack of front court depth has put a lot more pressure on SJSU’s guards to play flawless for the entirety of the game.

“I feel like I need to play perfect defense,” Cardenas said. “We’re a little bit undersized and we’re going to get pounded inside, so we can’t have those mental errors.”

When asked about the front court rotation minutes, Miles said, “I’m the most hopeful person you’ve met in your life, but I don’t think that’s gonna change.”

To those watching, the loss was more indicative of San Diego State’s lack of interest in playing SJSU. But this could be the springboard that gets SJSU going.

With a bunch of conference games still left to play and a chance to go to a post season tournament for the second consecutive year— something SJSU has never done— there should be plenty of motivation for the Spartans as they look to finish out Mountain West play.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Hartley, The Spear

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