SAN DIEGO — The bench and the block enabled San Diego State to fight back from a 14-point second-half deficit and defeat Colorado State, 75-72, in a Western Athletic Conference game Thursday night at the Sports Arena.
Credit Aztec reserve forward Gerald Murray and backup guard Bobby Owens for leading what SDSU Coach Smokey Gaines called "the biggest comeback at State in a game that meant something."
However, credit the referees for not making a call that could have turned Thursday night's Aztec victory into a near-miss.
With 1:12 to play and the Rams leading 70-69, Aztec center Leonard Allen blocked a 5-footer by Ram forward Andy Johannsen. The ball was either on its downward arc or close to it.
Goaltending? Allen appeared to look at the nearest official as if he thought a call would be made.
It's a judgment call, and no call was made.
"I guess it could have gone either way," Allen said with a smile. "When I was a freshman or sophomore, they usually called it. Think it probably was a home call."
Said Gaines: "Great block. The ball was going up."
"Unbelieveable," said Ram Coach Tony McAndrews. "No matter where the game is played, that is goaltending."
Eleven seconds after Allen's block, Owens hit a 23-footer from the right corner to give the Aztecs a 71-70 lead, a lead they kept the rest of the way.
"Actually, I thought we were up by one when I took the jumper," Owens said.
Why was Owens, who did not play in the first half, taking the Aztecs' most important shot of the night?
Because the 6-foot 1-inch junior guard had hit 3 of 5 jumpers to spark the Aztec comeback, and he was the team's leading scorer in the second half with 16 points.
With 50 seconds to play, the Rams were set to inbound the ball after calling a timeout at their end of the court. Aztec guard Anthony Watson tipped the inbounds pass to Allen.
Owens hit both ends of a one-and-one with 27 seconds to play to make it 73-70.
With three seconds to play, Rich Strong hit his first foul shot to make it 73-71. And to the disgust of his coach, he also made the second shot despite trying to miss it.
Owens sealed the victory by hitting both foul shots with two seconds to play.
"Last year," Gaines said, "we lost those same games at the foul line."
The only reason the Aztecs had a chance to win the game at the foul line was because Gaines inserted Murray and Owens with 15:44 to play and the Aztecs trailing 50-36.
"We needed a quicker lineup, and Ross and Kennedy weren't moving," Gaines said. "Gerald did a magnificent job."
Murray scored all six of his points and grabbed four of his six rebounds in the final 15 minutes.
A tipin and layup by Murray on consecutive trips down the floor brought the Aztecs within 58-56,with 8:42 to play.
Even more significantly, it brought the Aztecs and the crowd of 2,572 out of their seats. Their ovation was probably the most noise in the Sports Arena since Juli Veee scored his last goal as a Socker last spring.
"We weren't ready to play at the start of the game," Murray said, "but I had a feeling we would come back in the second half.
Bobby, Creon (Dorsey) and I kept telling each other that we can't let this game get away. We kept telling each other to fire up."
Using a full-court, man-to-man defense instead of the lethargic zone they used in the second half, the Aztecs caused numerous turnovers that resulted in enabling the Aztecs to run on offense.
Watson finished with a team-high 17 points. Dorsey had 13 points and 9 assists, and Allen had 11 points.
The Aztecs won the game by hitting 17 of 23 free throws and by playing tenacious defense down the stretch. Murray's physical defense on Strong was a key for an Aztec team (17-5, 8-3) that remains just one game back of first-place Texas-El Paso in the WAC. UTEP beat Utah, 68-56, in El Paso on Thursday night. New Mexico beat BYU, 76-74, in Albuquerque to remain tied with the Aztecs for second.