SAN DIEGO — If you want an indicator of the intensity of the San Diego State basketball team, just watch Jim Brandenburg. There is no better barometer of the Aztecs' effort than their fiery coach.
When he is up fussing, coaxing and pleading, chances are the Aztecs are giving less than their best. It is almost as if Brandenburg is trying to will his team to victory.
Brandenburg was up from the opening tap against Hawaii Thursday night. Which means the Aztecs' 74-71 Western Athletic Conference victory in front of a crowd of 2,174 at the San Diego Sports Arena was one of those not-so-pretty games.
It was a game in which the Aztecs committed 18 turnovers, failed to score a field goal in the final 4 minutes 20 seconds and watched an eight-point lead shrink to three in the final 63 seconds. Not until Reggie Cross' desperation, 60-foot shot bounced hard off of the back rim as time expired were the Aztecs assured a victory.
"When I can see they are not ready, I'm on them pretty good," Brandenburg said. "I won't let up."
It doesn't always work, but this time the Aztecs responded to the challenge.
Tony Ross contributed a season-high 29 points to lead three players in double figures. Mitch McMullen, who was at the receiving end of much of Brandenburg's motivational efforts, had 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Sam Johnson added 10 points and Rodney Hawkins 9 points and a team-high 11 rebounds despite fouling out with 3:58 to play.
The victory was an important one for the Aztecs (11-14 overall, 4-9 in conference), who are trying to make a late move in the WAC standings. The victory, combined with Air Force's 76-62 loss to Brigham Young Thursday, moved the Aztecs into a seventh-place tie with the Falcons, a half-game behind Colorado State.
The Aztecs, who play at Wyoming Saturday, have a chance to improve their standing. Air Force must play at Colorado State tonight, and SDSU plays host to Colorado State Thursday and Air Force March 5 to close out the regular season.
The victory not only helped the Aztecs in the conference race but was a small benchmark in the team's climb back to respectability. Their 11 victories are the most since they went 23-8 in 1984-85.
Hawaii (2-22, 1-12), meanwhile, lost its ninth game in a row and its 31st consecutive on the road over four seasons.
The Rainbows were led by Cross, a junior forward, who had a season-high 26 points and 13 rebounds. Hawaii was in the game until the end, despite having three starters foul out.
"Somehow we found a way to hang on and win," Ross said. "And that's the most important thing--that we won."
The game was just the kind of 40 minutes that might be expected from two teams struggling to revitalize their programs--messy but sometimes inspired.
"It's our Ping-Pong defense," Hawaii Coach Riley Wallace said. "We just knock people around and hope the ball bounces our way."
There was plenty of that in a slap-happy first half, during which neither team was able to take more than a five-point lead. There were nine lead changes and five ties.
Hawaii took the half's biggest lead at 35-30 with 1:53 to play. But the Aztecs outscored the Rainbows, 6-1, over the next 1:17 to tie the score at 36-36 on Bryan Williams' one-and-one free throws.
Hawaii appeared set to play for the last shot of the half, but as was the nature of this game, something went wrong. Cross, who until then had played a fine half, scoring 14 points and getting 8 rebounds, put up a misguided 12-footer too soon. The Aztecs rebounded and Johnson made a breakaway tomahawk dunk with one second left to give the Aztecs a 38-36 lead.
Despite the coaxing, urging and pleading of Brandenburg, the Aztecs were not able to put the Rainbows away.
SDSU took its first six-point lead of the game at 51-46 with 13:39 to play, but the Rainbows scored the next three baskets to tie the score at 51-51.
Ross made a three-pointer to give the Aztecs a 54-51 lead at 11:40, and they never trailed again. They took their biggest lead at 71-59 on Ross' three-pointer with 4:20 to play, but that's when their troubles began anew. They scored only three free throws the rest of the way and sweated it out while the Rainbows drew to within 74-71 on Cross' layup with four seconds to play.
The Aztecs inbounded the ball past midcourt, but Cross intercepted the long pass. He put up a line drive at the buzzer that bounced out of the cylinder, preserving the Aztecs' second victory over the Rainbows this season.