Fullerton, Calif., November 25, 2017 – Washington State has learned that indeed, it can play an efficient 40 minutes of basketball. San Diego State has learned that unlike last season, the Aztecs can close out a game.
In the Wooden Legacy championship game on Sunday at Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Gym, both teams hope their lessons pay off.
In either case, both squads are content with the progress they’ve made in the three-game tournament, but the experience of playing in an early season tournament title game is more than a bonus.
“It’s huge to be in the type of environment that the competition is tough, everybody is well-prepared, teams are sitting there watching you and you’re on that stage,” said Washington State coach Ernie Kent, whose team has opened the season with a five-game winning streak. “Being able to handle that and playing two games back to back is huge growth for this team.
“The good thing about it is we have huge growth potential still so this next challenge of playing in a championship game on ESPN in another environment is just going to allow us to grow. Win or lose the game, we’re going to get better. Better in the moment, we’re already better now than when we got on the plane to come here. It’s just been great for us so far.”
The Comeback Cougars opened the event by falling behind Saint Joseph’s by 20 points before storming back for a four-point victory. In the semifinals, they went toe-to-toe with No. 21 Saint Mary’s and made the right plays down the stretch to secure an 84-79 win.
They’ve been led by sophomore guard Malachi Flynn, who stuck the winning 3-pointer against St. Joe’s, then scored 26 against Saint Mary’s.
That success has inspired the young Cougars to think long into the future, particularly the way this three-game event can prepare them for the Pac-12 tournament later in the season.
“It definitely gives us that feel,” Flynn said. “Three games in four days, that’s kind of what the Pac-12 tournament is going to be like this year. It’s definitely preparing us, back-to-backs then one day off and a game so it’s going to help us in the long run.”
San Diego State’s final 3 1/ 2-minute surge in the Aztecs’ 75-68 win over Georgia was a game that they might not have won last season. Yet after trailing by one, the Aztecs (5-1) had five different players score as they pulled away for the semifinal victory.
That balance is reflected on the stat sheet, with four players averaging in double figures. In the win over Georgia, San Diego State prevailed with forward Malik Pope, the Aztecs’ leading scorer, saddled with foul trouble and able to produce only nine points in 19 minutes.
The 2013 Wooden Legacy champs like the track they’re on.
“It’s a big morale boost for us,” guard Trey Kell said. “Everyone was kind of disappointed after the way we performed against ASU on the road. So to come in here on a neutral court like this and beating two good teams and having the opportunity to play for something, that would mean a lot for us. We’ve got this day off to prepare and watch film and got to practice and we’ll be ready on Sunday.”
Guard Devin Watson, a sophomore transfer from USF, has led San Diego State in scoring in both tournament games. The Aztecs have also been bolstered off the bench by freshmen Jalen McDaniels and Jordan Schakel.
But the offensive efficiency of Washington State, which is averaging 80.6 points per game, will be a concern for San Diego State.
“Washington State has been incredibly tough this year,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said. “They’re undefeated, they’re exceeding expectations. I haven’t seen that much of them but that’s why to have the extra day is as good as anything for us.”
In the third-place game, Saint Mary’s (5-1) will face Georgia (4-1) in a game that features one player on each team who is a John R. Wooden Award preseason top 50 prospect. Jock Landale, the 6-foot-11 center, will lead the Gaels against the Bulldogs and senior forward Yante Maten.
Tournament host Cal State Fullerton (2-3) will take on Harvard (3-3) in the fifth-place game, and Saint Joseph’s (2-3) meets Sacramento State (1-5 for seventh place.