FRESNO — As he walked off the court at halftime, San Diego State forward Juan Espinoza glanced up at the scoreboard. Once, twice, three times.
"I wasn't sure that we were really winning," Espinoza said.
As incredible as that might have been, the Aztecs were winning.
The San Diego State basketball team, the team that every preseason poll and publication had picked as one of the lowliest in the country, was leading Kansas State, which had four starters returning from a team that last season reached the second round of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament.
Even SDSU Coach Jim Brandenburg had to check with one of his assistants to be sure of the score after a last-second Kansas State basket had cut the lead to two points.
"I wasn't sure if that one before the half had tied it up or not," Brandenburg said.
Said sophomore guard Tony Ross: "We knew if we came out and played as well in the second half, we could beat them."
That SDSU failed at that task and lost to the Wildcats, 79-68, in the first round of the Sun Met tournament Friday night in front of a crowd of 10,159 at Selland Arena. However, the loss could not dull the encouragement that the Aztecs took from their first game under Brandenburg.
The Aztecs will play Northern Arizona, a 66-49 loser to Fresno State in Friday's second game, in the consolation game tonight at 6. In the following game, Kansas State will play Fresno in the championship at 8.
"We know we did a lot of things wrong," Espinoza said, "but we did some things right, and we all feel good about that."
Said Ross: "We showed that the Aztecs are back."
After just one game, and a loss at that, such pronouncements might be going a bit too far. But Ross and the Aztecs evidently felt a lot better about themselves.
Ross led the Aztecs with 21 points on 8-of-16 shooting from the field, including 5 of 8 from three-point range. He started slowly, missing his first three shots, but recovered to key the Aztecs' first-half surge with three three-pointers in an 88-second span.
Rodney Hawkins, a senior forward, had 13 points and a game-high 8 rebounds. Mitch McMullen, a 6-foot 10-inch junior transfer starting his first game at center, scored 13 points, had 4 rebounds and blocked 3 shots.
The Wildcats were led by Mitch Richmond, senior forward, who scored 28 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the field. He was perfect on three three-point attempts and was 9 of 11 from the free-throw line.
"I thought Mitch played about as well as anyone we have," said Lon Kruger, Kansas State coach.
But as happy as Kruger might have been with Richmond, he saved most of his praise for the Aztecs.
"San Diego State just simply outplayed us," he said. "They got the loose balls. They generally fought hard and outplayed us."
Kruger sounded like a man who meant it, but Brandenburg smiled at his remarks.
"Kansas corn pone," he said.
Like his players, Brandenburg could not hide his touch of encouragement, but he was bit harder on the Aztecs' performance than Kuger.
Taking his criticisms one at a time:
--Rebounding: The Aztecs were beaten on the boards, 34-26.
--Defense: SDSU played man-to-man for most of the game. But when they switched briefly into a zone defense with a late first-half lead, the Wildcats stung them for consecutive three-pointers. "Our zone just isn't ready to go yet," Brandenburg said.
--Offensive organization: The tight man-to-man defense used by Kansas State unnerved the Aztecs early, forcing them into five turnovers in the first six minutes.
--Free-throw shooting: The Aztecs were 8 of 19. McMullen was 1 of 7, including an attempt that barely tickled the bottom of the net.
Actually, despite his troubles at the line, McMullen had one of the more encouraging games among the Aztecs. He was effective inside against the Wildcats, making 6-of-7 shots on a variety of layups, turnaround hooks and bank shots.
"The big guy did really give us a lot of trouble," Kruger said. "He pretty much dictated everything that happened on their offensive end."
McMullen helped keep SDSU in the game early, scoring six of the Aztecs' first 12 points. But the Wildcats took a 28-16 lead with 7:46 left in the first half, and it appeared the Aztecs might be headed for a long night. Instead, they rallied.
The Aztecs scored 21 of the next 24 points to take a 37-31 lead with 2:13 left in the half. The Wildcats closed to within 41-39 on Will Scott's 15-foot fall away jumper from the base line just before the buzzer.
SDSU last led, 49-48, with 15:23 left in the game before Kansas State scored nine consecutive points to take a 57-49 lead at 12:32. The Aztecs could get no closer than 70-65 with 3:29 left.
"We just got tired at the end," Ross said. "Fatigue set in."
McMullen might have been affected the most. With the suspension of Gerald Murray after his arrest on suspicion of drug violations Tuesday and the illness to freshman reserve Neil Steinly, Brandenburg was forced to play McMullen for 32 minutes.
"Mitch has to be ready to go the distance," Brandenburg said. "Right now, we just don't have much of a choice."
Kansas State 79, San Diego State 68
SAN DIEGO STATE--Hawkins 13, Espinoza 9, McMullen 13, Williams 9, Ross 21, Walker 0, Rogers 0, Johnson 3.
KANSAS STATE--Richmond 28, Bledsoe 8, Meyer 3, Henson 8, Scott 13, Glover 7, Diggins 2, deAlmeida 0, Dobbins 9, McCoy 1.