SAN DIEGO (AP) — San Diego State rallied just in time to improve to 6-0 for the first time since Kawhi Leonard led the Aztecs to the best season in school history eight years ago.
Malachi Flynn scored 11 points and Yanni Wetzell added 10 for the streaky Aztecs, who beat Tennessee State 62-49 Monday night.
SDSU shot poorly all night, finishing at 35.7%, but righted itself midway through the second half.
“We had no offensive rhythm at all today, but our defense carried us and we rebounded enough to come out with a win against a very scrappy Tennessee State team,” coach Brian Dutcher said. “We broke the game open when we finally got a few fast break opportunities. We forced 18 turnovers and some of those in the second half we were able to run out on and get some fast break opportunities.
“We’re deep and we needed every player we had on the team today to step up and make important plays for us.”
SDSU is 6-0 for the first time since 2010-11, when Leonard lead them to a 20-0 start and the school’s first Sweet 16 berth. The Aztecs finished 34-3 after a loss to eventual national champion UConn.
Flynn hit a big 3-pointer in the closing minute to reach double digits. Wetzell scored in double digits in three straight games for the first time in his career. He hit two more of his sweet post-up hook shots, the first one to open scoring and the second one early in the second half.
Matt Mitchell and Trey Pulliam keyed a 9-0 run midway through the second half to give the Aztecs the lead for good.
With the score tied at 31, Mitchell made a three throw and a three-point play, and Pulliam hit a runner in the key and converted a three-point play as the Aztecs surged to a 40-31 lead.
“I think it started on the defensive end,” Wetzell said. “I think that if we can manage to get stops and get out in transition, that kind of started our run, ignited our little run that we had, and that was the big burst that we needed.”
The Tigers rattled off consecutive baskets by Michael Littlejohn, Shakem Johnson and Mark Freeman to pull within four.
San Diego State then got hot again, with Flynn and Adam Seiko hitting 3-point shots and Wetzell making a fast-break layup to push the lead to 48-37.
Mitchell and Adam Seiko had nine points apiece. Seiko hit three 3-pointers.
Wetzell, a big New Zealander, said the Tigers played tough defense. “They weren’t giving you any easy 2s. Credit to them, they fought hard and they’re a physical team.”
Littlejohn scored 21 for Tennessee State (3-3).
“San Diego State is an unbelievable team,” Tennessee State coach Brian Collins said. “They’re well-coached, a preseason No. 2 pick in the Mountain West Conference, so for us to come out here and battle them as one of the top teams in the Mountain West says a lot about our guys.”
The Tigers outscored SDSU 13-4 in the final nine minutes of the first half.
SDSU led 21-10 after Nathan Mensah’s layup and then went the rest of the half without making a field goal.
The Tigers pulled back into it and took a 22-21 lead on Mark Freeman’s 3-pointer with 3:45 left. Ben Kone hit the first of two free throws before the Aztecs closed the half with two free throws by Wetzell and KJ Feagin to take a 25-23 lead.
This was an unbracketed game in the Las Vegas Invitational. Both teams will head to Las Vegas to play in different brackets.
Tennessee State: The Tigers were coming off a 72-57 loss at Texas Tech in which they trailed by just three points at halftime. “We played two high measure-type teams in San Diego State and Texas Tech, and in both games we held them under 35% shooting,” Collins said. “Our defense was able to hold on in both of those games and kind of keep us in the game.”
San Diego State: The Aztecs need to pick up their game if they’re going to come away with at least one win from their trip to Las Vegas. They play Creighton on Thursday night, with the winner to face the winner of the No. 12 Texas Tech-Iowa game on Friday night. SDSU won at BYU on Nov. 9 and also plays Utah in Los Angeles on De. 21. The Aztecs are looking for good results from those four games in order to improve their chances of an at-large NCAA Tournament bid if they don’t win the Mountain West Conference tournament.
Tennessee State plays Cal Poly on Thursday afternoon in Las Vegas.
San Diego State plays Creighton on Thursday night in the main bracket of the Las Vegas Invitational.
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