ANAHEIM — As the final seconds melted away in San Diego State's 78-69 victory over UCLA on Saturday night, the Aztecs' irreverent student section delighted in taking one final parting shot at their neighbors to the north.
"We run Cali," the students chanted over and over again.
A statement that would've seemed ludicrous when Steve Fisher took over a program coming off 13 losing seasons in 14 years now is nearly undeniable. The Aztecs have earned the right to call themselves the best college basketball team in California after 26 consecutive wins over in-state foes including a pair of victories apiece over Cal, USC and Long Beach State.
That it was no surprise San Diego State added UCLA to its list of in-state victims is a testament to the trajectory of both programs these days.
UCLA, the school with 11 national championships, has missed the NCAA tournament two of the past three seasons and likely needs to land a bid this season just to save head coach Ben Howland's job. San Diego State, the school that had never won an NCAA tournament game prior to 2010, boasts a top 25 ranking, a 5-1 record and the swagger of a program that expects to beat high-profile opponents.
"I feel we are the best [in California] right now," San Diego State junior guard Jamaal Franklin said. "I'm not saying we're the best forever because there are a lot of good teams out there. UCLA is a good team. USC played us down to the nose at their house. But I feel we did a lot to earn that position right now and we've got to continue. We've got to try to make it 27, 28, 29 and 30."
It was especially meaningful for San Diego State to beat UCLA because the Bruins have never been willing to agree to a series against the Aztecs during Fisher's 15-year tenure. The only reason San Diego State got a shot at UCLA this season was because Honda Center officials were tired of the Wooden Classic being played in front of a half-empty arena and they knew Aztecs fans would eagerly make the 90-minute drive to see their team in a marquee game.
San Diego State fans did not disappoint, much to the delight of Fisher and the dismay of Howland.
Said Fisher, "I was very, very proud of our crowd. They have allowed us to grow our program, and they displayed that tonight."
Said Howland, "They had great crowd support. It was like playing a road game wearing a white jersey, which you don't do too often."
UCLA had an opportunity to send the San Diego State crowd home disappointed thanks mostly to a two-three zone designed to protect the paint and dare the Aztecs to win with jump shots. Since UCLA has only seven healthy scholarship players and lacks sufficient quickness on the perimeter, the purpose of the zone was to hide the Bruins' deficiencies and keep them out of foul trouble.
San Diego State missed seven of its first eight 3-pointers and scored only 13 points in the game's first 13 minutes, but the Aztecs eventually caught fire from the perimeter. Xavier Thames sank 5 of 6 from behind the arc and San Diego State buried 10 of its last 19 3-point attempts, prompting Howland to temporarily abandon the zone with nine minutes to go and UCLA trailing 56-53.
That proved to be a mistake, however, because it allowed San Diego State to finally exploit its quickness advantage on the perimeter. Though the Bruins got a defensive stop on their first possession in man-to-man, they surrendered 11 points in the next five possessions set up mostly by Thames or Franklin attacking the rim.
"We went man to try to switch things up because we weren't getting stops in that zone," Howland said. "We made a couple mistakes where the ball was at the wing and our guard didn't come up and take away the pass to the point. Thames got to wide-open threes."
By the time UCLA switched back to zone, San Diego State led 67-55 and the Aztec coronation had begun.
Franklin led all scorers, finishing with 28 points on 9 of 18 shooting and out-playing more highly touted wing recruits like Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson. Freshman Jordan Adams again led UCLA in scoring with 23 points, while Muhammad had 16.
During his postgame press conference, Howland was asked to assess whether San Diego State's in-state winning streak merited the title of California's best team. He praised the job Fisher has done but essentially dodged the question, responding "That's quite a big statement. There's a lot of good teams in the state."
What even Howland would have to admit is the Aztecs have eclipsed UCLA at this time.
They out-draw UCLA nightly. They beat the Bruins for four-star recruit Dakarai Allen over the summer. And now they own a head-to-head win over UCLA in the first meeting between the programs in two decades.
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