SAN DIEGO — It didn't take Soviet Coach Aleksandr Gomelsky long to put into words what Coach Jim Brandenburg has known for months about his San Diego State basketball team. And he didn't even need a translator.
"I feel for him," Gomelsky said.
Informed of Gomelsky's remark, Brandenburg allowed himself a knowing smile. He knew when he took over the Aztecs after nine seasons at Wyoming that he would have his work cut out for him. Tuesday night, he had another glimpse at just how much work is needed.
The Aztecs lost to the Soviet Union national team, 94-65. But it wasn't the score that surprised Gomelsky so much as the crowd. Only 2,186 came out to the 13,741-seat San Diego Sports Arena to see a team that includes more than half of the players Gomelsky said should represent the Soviet Union next year at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
"I was a little surprised," Gomelsky said. "This is the first time in all our time in America that we have played in a half-empty arena. It disturbed us and disappointed us.
"We know that basketball is very popular in America. It seems that San Diego is a city that is not like other American cities in that way."
The crowd was the smallest to see the Soviets in the first 4 games of a 10-game exhibition series against U.S. college teams. The Soviets are 4-0, and despite Gomelsky's comment that the lack of a crowd discouraged his team from playing its best, the Soviets demonstrated again why they are one of the best amateur basketball teams in the world.
All 13 Soviets played, and 12 scored. They were led by forward Sergey Tarakanov and Vladas Khomichus, a 6-foot 2-inch reserve guard, who scored 15 each.
San Diego State was paced by Mitch McMullen, a 6-10 junior transfer from the College of the Canyons, who scored 13 points. Sophomore guard Tony Ross had 11 points but was only 4 of 13 from the field.
The first half was a flurry of San Diego State substitutions and miscues.
The Aztecs turned the ball over on six of their first seven possessions and finished the half with 13 turnovers. "We came out very nervous," Brandenburg said.
But the Aztecs were able to stay close for at least the first 10 minutes as Brandenburg rotated nine players in an effort to keep his team fresh against the taller and more experienced Soviets.
The plan worked at first as the Soviets started slowly. After falling behind, 8-2, in the first four minutes, the Aztecs pulled within a point at 13-12 on a three-point play by junior forward Sam Johnson with 10:21 left in the half.
"At that point I thought we were going to win," Johnson said. "But we got tired, and they just wore us down. They were everything I heard they would be--big and physical."
The Soviets scored the next eight points to take a 21-12 lead with 8:42 to play. The Aztecs never got back in the game.
The Soviets improved their lead to 44-20 with 30 seconds left in the half before Ross made two free throws with no time on the clock to make the score 44-22.
The Aztecs played a more controlled game in the second half, committing only four turnovers, but they could never get closer than 63-43 with 11:29 to play.
The Aztecs shot only 32.9% (23 of 70) from the field and were 1 of 8 from three-point range. They also struggled at the free-throw line, making only 18 of 35 attempts. The Soviets recovered from their sluggish start to shoot 50.8% (32 of 63) and were 8 of 13 on three-pointers.
The Soviets also intimidated the Aztec shooters, blocking 14 shots, including 6 by Aleksandr Belosteni, a 7-foot center.
The most encouraging sign for the Aztecs was their rebounding. The Aztecs out-rebounded the Soviets, 51-44. Rodney Hawkins, a 6-8 senior forward, had a game-high 10 rebounds and added 8 points before he fouled out after playing only 27 minutes. Juan Espinoza, a 6-8 senior forward, added 8 rebounds and 7 points.
Those were some of the encouraging signs, but Gomelsky said Brandenburg has plenty to work on.
"He has a good reputation; he is a well-known coach," said Gomelsky, who has coached the past five Soviet Olympic teams. "He is a good organizer of defense. He is good at tactics. He is a good teacher. But he has to do a lot of work in order to field a good team. I wish him success."
San Diego State quarterback Todd Santos, who set the major-college career passing yardage record Saturday against Brigham Young, watched the game from the stands and received a standing ovation.