San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher was headed down the sideline at Viejas Arena last month to shake hands with UNLV counterpart Marvin Menzies, the Aztecs up 14, the Rebels players no longer pressing, the final seconds ticking away, 3, 2, 1 … when out of the corner of his eye he saw an official’s hands go over his head to signal a 3-pointer was good at the buzzer.
“I didn’t see it,” Dutcher said. “I didn’t even know who shot it.”
Sports have an unwritten, unspoken code of honor and virtue – not stealing a base in the late innings of a lopsided game in baseball, kicking the ball out of bounds in soccer if someone gets hurt (or pretends to), not walking across someone’s putting line in golf. In basketball, it is not shooting in the closing seconds with a big lead.
Aztecs sophomore forward Jalen McDaniels had a career-high 27 points to go with 13 rebounds, four assists and five steals against the Rebels, a breakout game of sorts after some lackluster performances earlier in the season. He was feeling it. He had the ball on the Mountain West logo next to the Aztecs bench, 32 feet from the basket. The clock was running down. He figured, why not. Swish.
A few minutes later, UNLV senior Kris Clyburn was telling reporters, “That was a slap in the face. But we’re not really going to talk about that. We’ll just see San Diego when they get to UNLV.”
They do Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. It appears memories have not faded.
“I definitely remember that shot,” Rebels sophomore Amauri Hardy told Las Vegas media on Friday. “We've already talked about that one … just disrespect and probably a little bit of ignorance they have.”
Clyburn was asked if he feels the same way about it. “Pretty much the same way,” he said.
Dutcher, the son of a college coach, has been around the game his entire life. He understands how it works. He knows what’s coming.
In the post-game press conference last month, Dutcher admitted: “The ones who will remember that more than anybody are the Rebels when we go there to play them in Vegas, and they should. (Jalen) will pay that toll when he gets there.”
Before practice Friday, Dutcher added: “If I was Marvin, I’d be using it, too. I’d say: ‘That was disrespectful, and we have to make them pay for that.’ I think it might have an effect the first minute or two, but then the game will settle into the rhythm the game’s going to settle into. It’s going to be competitive regardless of whether Jalen would have shot that or not.”
Sports’ unwritten rules can be arbitrary and unevenly enforced, sometimes inciting brawls, sometimes altogether ignored. Some people take umbrage if they’re violated. Others shrug.
In November, Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving grabbed the ball and chucked it in the stands after Denver’s Jamal Murray, sitting on 48 points, hoisted a 3 hoping to score 50 instead of dribbling out the clock. Irving was hit with a $25,000 fine and seemed fine with it, explaining: “The ball deserves to go in the crowd after a b.s. move like that. So I threw it in the crowd.”
But a few lockers away, teammate Jaylen Brown told reporters: “At the end of the day, whether people get frustrated over it or not, I can see both sides. The game was over, the dude had a hell of a night. I feel like it was a little disrespectful, but at the same time, let him do him. What am I going to do?”
Or there was Game 1 of the NBA Finals last June, when Golden State’s Shaun Livingston shot with four seconds left and the Warriors up eight. Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson contested the jumper by leading with his elbow and was ejected.
“I contested a shot that shouldn’t have been taken,” Thompson said.
Or should it?
Warriors coach Steve Kerr noted that there was a differential between the shot clock and game clock, and the written rules require teams to shoot before it expires, and his team isn’t willingly taking a turnover in the name of sportsmanship. If the shot clock is off, they’re not shooting; if it’s on, they’re shooting.
“I don’t know why there’s any ritual that says you’re supposed to stop playing,” Kerr said.
Dutcher adopts a similar philosophy, although his is dictated by the losing team’s level of intensity. If they’re still pressing, still vigorously defending, he’s not going to tell his team to stop playing – or shooting. If they back off, he’ll back off.
Which is why he considers McDaniels’ 3 ill-advised and concedes “I wish he hadn’t had done it and, in hindsight, I hope he feels the same way.” Menzies had instructed his players to stop defending, and they were walking off the court.
Why McDaniels shot or whether he regrets it or what reception he expects at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday, we don’t know. SDSU once again did not make him available to media Friday, his third month of silence. Other than a brief radio interview after the UNLV game in which he was not asked about the shot, the last time SDSU’s leading scorer spoke to media was Nov. 20.
Dutcher said he would counsel McDaniels before Saturday’s game: “I’ll say, ‘Jalen, they’re going to come after you. You have to be smart, be under control with your emotions, you can’t get early fouls because of the way they’re coming at you.’ The nice thing is Jalen is a third-year sophomore who will be mature enough, hopefully, to handle that type of environment.”
“We’ll be ready for whatever, regardless,” SDSU senior Jeremy Hemsley said. “If they’re going to us that as extra motivation, that’s fine. It’s up to us to match that intensity or have them match our intensity.”
SDSU at UNLV
Saturday: 7 p.m. at Thomas & Mack Center
On the air: ESPNU; 1360-AM, 101.5-FM
Records: SDSU is 17-9, 9-4; UNLV is 15-11, 9-5
Series history: UNLV leads 36-34 but SDSU has won 13 of the last 14 by an average of 12.2 points, including 94-77 at Viejas Arena last month.
Aztecs update: They are playing their best basketball of the season, winning four straight and seven of eight after Wednesday’s historic 65-57 win against No. 6 Nevada (the highest-ranked victim in school history). So they’ll have to guard the Rebels, and guard against a letdown. Said coach Brian Dutcher: “Hopefully they’re thinking about UNLV and (how) it’s going to be a difficult game. Human nature is to think that we scored 94 points here and it’s just going to happen again. I’ll remind them that Boise beat us by 24 at their place and we got them here. Every game is its own entity.” Last season’s loss aside (when Trey Kell rolled an ankle early in the game), the Aztecs have played well at UNLV in recent years, winning their previous seven before that. SDSU shot 70.8 percent in the second half of the January game against the Rebels at Viejas Arena and had four players score in double figures: Jalen McDaniels (30), Devin Watson (15), Jeremy Hemsley (13) and Matt Mitchell (11). The Aztecs were 24 of 30 at the line and had 12 steals, both highs for a conference game this season. Jordan Schakel (ankle) did not play in that game but is expected to get minutes Saturday.
Rebels update: Their conference season in a nutshell: Won five of six, lost four of five, won three straight. That’s largely because of how the schedule unfolded. The fifth-place Rebels are 0-4 against Mountain West teams ahead of them in the standings, 9-1 against teams below them. The Aztecs have a half-game lead for fourth place over UNLV. The schedule aside, the Rebels do seem to be playing better in the last few weeks with the return of 6-11 Senegalese center Cheikh Mbacke Diong. He averages just 6.9 points and 6.7 rebounds, but his shot-blocking presence makes the Rebels a far better defensive team. He was out injured for the first meeting, and the Aztecs shot 56.1 percent and scored 94. Since returning to the starting lineup, the Rebels are 4-1. Shakur Juiston was lost for the season with a knee injury after eight games, as was center Cheickna Dembele with a finger injury. Kris Clyburn (13.2 ppg), Amauri Hardy (13.1 ppg) and Joel Ntambwe (12.4 ppg) are the leading scorers. “If you beat a team, the next time you play them it’s always a little bit more intense and a little bit more competitive,” SDSU’s Jeremy Hemsley said of UNLV’s revenge factor. “We’ve got to be ready for that.”
Next up: at Utah State on Tuesday (6:30 p.m. PST, CBSSN)