The beginning of conference play can be quite an adjustment for teams, especially if you rely on players who haven't been through league play before. That may have been what happened to #14 New Mexico in San Diego, where they slowly lost control of the game in a 74-64 loss to San Diego State in the Mountain West opener for both. But the Aztecs suffered a loss during the game with Billy White going down late in the first half to a high (right) ankle sprain. Luckily for Steve Fisher Malcolm Thomas brought his A-game to Viejas Arena at Aztec Bowl, scoring 18 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in the win. D.J. Gay, who has evolved from a secondary ballhandler into a lead guard, added 12 points and five assists while the Aztecs finished a +9 on the boards.
Two areas in which the Lobos didn't play at the same level they have in the majority of their games this season: Darington Hobson and taking care of the basketball. SDSU harassed Hobson into a 4-for-17 night from the field for 12 points and four turnovers, and as a team New Mexico finished with fourteen turnovers to just nine assists (Hobson had three assists). San Diego State's defense is what turned the tide of a game that New Mexico led until about the final six minutes of the first half, finishing the night with eleven steals and holding UNM to 35.1% shooting from the field. It's just the opener but early home losses can come back to bite you down the road; give SDSU credit for taking care of business even with the loss of one of their best players.
Three Key Happenings
1. Georgia picks up a big win and delivers the first bit of misery to Georgia Tech fans. Despite the unpredictable nature of rivalry games it seemed to be a good thing that the Georgia Tech football team would be playing in the FedEx Orange Bowl (which they lost 24-14 to Iowa) at the same time for Georgia's sake. But the relatively hidden nature of the game turned out to be a "good" thing for the Yellow Jackets, who fell in Athens 73-66. Caught looking ahead to Duke's visit on Saturday? That's possible but when facing your bitter rival that "reason" doesn't hold much weight. Instead, the Yellow Jackets remain without a win at Stegeman Coliseum since 1976.
Trey Thompkins led the Bulldogs with 20 points and six rebounds while Gani Lawal led the Jackets (and all scorers) with 21, but Georgia held the visitors to 38.3% shooting from the field. It was a sloppy game to say the least with the two teams combining for thirty-eight turnovers but only seventeen were steals. The Bulldogs simply got better shots and made theirs at a higher clip, giving them the edge they needed in order to pull off the upset. But no means has Mark Fox finished the rebuilding job but this is a step in the right direction.
2. Courtney Fortson returns to the Arkansas lineup. Suspended for the first fourteen games of the season, Fortson made his presence known with 21 points and seven assists in the Razorbacks' 96-85 loss to #2 Texas. But the reason why it didn't matter, and why they'll be in a fight to avoid the SEC West cellar this year, was a simple one: they don't have the size inside necessary to compete with top teams right now. Michael Washington and Marshawn Powell had their hands full with Dexter Pittman in the paint and by the time the game ended Pittman posted another double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
Texas, who shot 58.8% from the field, didn't have to use much energy to find good looks in their offensive sets while the Hogs needed a Herculean effort on many of their possessions to get their looks. When you shoot 43.9% from the field you'd better have enough defense to make sure your opponent finishes in the same area. John Pelphrey's squad hasn't shown the ability to consistently guard people, something that will have their season headed downhill if not remedied soon.
3. Rhode Island simply finds a way to win at Akron. A loss to the Zips, the preseason favorite in the MAC, wouldn't have been a deadly blow but it would have robbed the Rams of their momentum going into Atlantic 10 play. But despite shooting 35.9% from the field and trailing 36-29 at the half, Jim Baron's team was able to fight back for the 68-63 win. Lamonte Ulmer led the Rams with 20 points and 11 rebounds while the Zips were paced by Brett McKnight's thirteen. The difference: Rhode Island finished a +9 in points from the foul line (20-11) and a +6 in turnover margin.
And their big three showed up; Delroy James and Keith Cothran did enough to supplement Ulmer's output while Akron struggled to find consisten options on their end of the floor. To win a game like this on the road before league plays is a solid confidence boost for Rhode Island, cementing their status a as a contender in the Atlantic 10. Next up: Temple at the Ryan Center on Sunday.
Top Three Games
1. Notre Dame 74, USF 73 Luke Harangody scored thirty-six points and the Fighting Irish needed every one of those points in Tampa. His free throw with 1.9 seconds remaining provided the final margin.
2. Colorado 67, Miami (OH) 65 The Buffaloes avoided what would have been a bad loss heading into Big 12 play thanks to Alec Burks, who posted the line of 17 points, 10 rebounds and three assists. Kenny Hayes (Miami) led all scorers with 21 points while Allen Roberts' three point attempt missed at the buzzer.
3. San Diego State 74, New Mexico 64 See above.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Luke Harangody (Notre Dame) The Big East Player of the Year candidate scored 36 points and grabbed six rebounds in the Fighting Irish's 74-73 win over USF.
2. F Malcolm Thomas (San Diego State) Thomas scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in the Aztecs' 74-64 win over #14 New Mexico in the Mountain West opener for both.
3. F Robbie Hummel (Purdue) Hummel posted the stat line of 18 points, 11 rebounds and three assists in the Boilermakers' 79-60 win over Minnesota in West Lafayette.