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Story and photos by Liz Alper

Full quotes courtesy Jamie McConeghy

November 8, 2016 (San Diego) - Election Day saw a plethora of San Diego State coaches and athletes at this week's press conference.  Aztecs men's basketball coach Steve Fisher and sophomore forward Zylan Cheatham, football head coach Rocky Long, women's basketball coach Stacie Terry, junior defensive end Sergio Phillips and junior tight end David Wells took the mic this week.

Aztecs men's basketball finished exhibition on a strong note last night with a win against Cal State San Marcos and now begin their season on Friday night against crosstown rival University of San Diego at 8 p.m.  SDSU lost to USD last year and hopes to have a better showing this year.  Cheatham was asked why they lost.  “I mean, obviously the game didn’t go in our favor. We didn’t make enough plays to win a game.  It’s a new season, new year, some new guys, so our coaches are going to try to put together a great game plan, and we’re going to try to execute that and get a win.

"Everyone knows what happened last year, but I think we’re coming in with the same edge, taking it one game at a time, trying to get a W.”

“We are immensely excited to start the official season on Friday," Fisher said.  "Happy to be opening at home. Look forward to a great crowd and an atmosphere that will say this is how Division I basketball should be...We will be anxious to see how we will play and I, with all my heart, believe we will play really well."

There's been a lot of buzz about the newest members of the team, mostly transfers:  Valentine Izundu (Washington State), Max Hoetzel (Indiana) and Montaque Gill-Caesar (Missouri) who posted a game-high 18 points in his first game as an Aztec.  Cheatham was asked what his feelings are towards them and the new players. “Excitement, to say the least. To come out first game and score 53 points in the first half, that hasn’t happened in a while so to see that happen and to see those new guys, guys like Montaque get accustomed to our style of play. It’s very exciting to me to see our potential and to see some of things we could have and be able to do. We haven’t even scratched the surface, we haven’t even had all our guys on the floor so that is really exciting to me, the future of this team and see where we can take it.

"Valentine is a really interesting character. He is one of those guys that is an impeccable shot-blocker. His timing is crazy. Some of the things he brings to us on the floor—size, versatility, that inside presence—knowing that you’ve got him behind you when sudden plays break down, he makes up for a lot of our mistakes so I’m really excited to get him on the court and give you guys a first look at seeing him and what we have obviously seen through practice and various workouts. I’m really excited about him and I’m excited to get Malik and all our guys back, honestly.”

There is a lot of concern over junior forward Malik Pope and an injury issue with his knee.  Last night, according to Fisher, he warmed up fine and at the start of the game, his knee started to bother him.  Cheatham commented on the situation. “I mean, obviously it wasn’t an ideal situation last night. He was obviously prepared mentally and physically going into the game and once the tip off came, it didn’t go ideal. He is always in positive spirits and he tried to stay strong about the situation and just wants to find out what’s going on with his leg so he can put it behind him and get back to war with us.  Before the huddle, I was 100-percent sure he was going to play. I’d seen him in warmups looking like Malik, doing his fantastic dunks, doing his thing. I didn’t see any flaws and he didn’t either, so I think it was kind of one of those things that just happen and don’t feel right.”

On Thursday night against UCSD, sophomore guard Jeremy Hemsley was draining shots from almost impossible angles.  Last week, Fisher said that Hemsley has been working on his shot and shooting better.  This week, I asked Cheatham about his opinion on what he's seen from Hemsley. “The things Jeremy does now are—I wouldn’t say surprising to me. I watched him progress as a player all summer, I watched him put in the work, I watched him work on those finishes that you see now. I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t get the chance to see. They just see the end result. Seeing him doing the extra work in practice, seeing him do it before and after all summer, I’m not really surprised. He’s an amazing player, and he’s only going to get better because he has the mindset and loves to work, loves to get better at certain things. We expect a lot out of Jeremy and I for sure expect a lot out of him so everything he does is pretty much not surprising to me. I see him do it all the time.”

Impressed by Gill-Caesar's performance on Thursday night, I asked Cheatham and Fisher about how he and the other transfers help the team. “Montaque is an unreal scorer. I’ve been quoted saying that weeks prior to what he did," Cheatham said. "He’s an unreal scorer and brings a new edge to this team, a new scoring ability, versatility-wise and brings us a new aspect that is definitely going to be beneficial in the long run if you ask me.”

“I think we are all excited to see the guys who have not shot a ball when it matters for San Diego State, see how they play and perform starting on Friday," Fisher said. "We’ve got a handful of them and Teki (Gill-Caesar) is one of them. He had a wonderful game against UCSD and he will be a really good addition for us. He’s got some versatility in how he plays and we need Teki healthy. When he has the ability to be on the practice floor, he’s shown us some things that are instinctive in how he plays, so we’re anxious to get him out there, get Valentine out there, get Max back and Jalen (McDaniels) and all the rest of them and give them an opportunity to play.”

A problem on any basketball team is foul trouble and SDSU had a lot of that last night.  Fisher was asked how to avoid it. “We need everybody to come out of the game because I want to take them out, and not because we feel like we need to protect them and hold them because they have two early fouls or three or four fouls.... Zylan is our best screener. He’s our best screener, so he has to screen and not get called for an illegal screen like he did last night. So we’ve got to eliminate some of those kinds of plays, but yeah we need to have him ready to go, and me take him out when I think he needs a break and when I want to take him out. He’s got to stay out of foul trouble."

Terry is enthused about getting the Lady Aztecs on the court again. “We’re excited to get going...I think our girls are excited to start the season. We’re headed down to Riverside and we’re going to face a really good team, a different team than what we saw last year. But they have a lot of key returners and some great newcomers that are going to come in and definitely give us a challenge.  But I think it’s a good challenge for us and I think our girls are excited and ready to play. We’re excited to get going and looking forward to the season because I think we have a lot of things that will be fun to watch. I think our offense will be improved. We’re changing our defense a little bit so we will have been improved in that but we’re excited for the season to get started and get going.”

Terry was asked if the team will be shooting more three-pointers. "Yes, we’ll be shooting more threes.  We’re definitely trying to play a little faster brand of basketball, trying to get more possessions and to do that, we’re going to have to shoot the ball a little quicker. We worked very hard on the three-point shot."

Terry was also asked on how the team has improved rebounding. "We’re hoping to be better. We definitely put an emphasis on rebounding both offensively and defensively in every single practice. With our incoming freshmen, we recruited some height so naturally, I think we’ll have some improvement there just because we’re a taller team than we’ve been in the past."

The Lady Aztecs start the season Friday night against UC Riverside in Riverside.  I asked Coach Terry what the challenges are (besides the crowd factor) of starting the season on the road. “It’s always tough to start on the road. Obviously you’re going into someone else’s home and they have the home court advantage so it’s going to be a challenge for us but I think it’s a good challenge and a needed challenge. We have a nice mixture of youth and experience so I think it’ll be a great test on the road early to give us some confidence going into conference play knowing we can go anywhere and compete. Obviously we’d prefer to open up at home but I think it’ll be a great challenge for us to open up on the road.”

And lastly, Coach Terry was asked about the defensive improvements. “We’re much deeper than we were. I think we have many young ladies that can contribute so we’re going to try to play a quicker tempo and we’re going to have to play some more man. We’re going to try to speed up the game and press a little bit more, pressure a little bit more and see if we can create some turnovers from our defense. With the personnel that we have, we have some good, quick guards with (senior) Ariell Bostick and (junior) McKynzie Fort and with the addition of some of our freshmen, we can defend a little bit. We’re not exposed in the paint because we recruited a couple kids that are taller than 5’10 and can actually play at the post. We’re confident that we have a rim protector in one of our freshmen, Naomi Ekwedike, and we’re excited to get playing at a faster pace.”

The Lady Aztecs' game against UC Riverside is Friday at 7 p.m.

Lastly, SDSU football travels to Nevada on Saturday night to take on the Wolfpack. "(Reno) is a tough place to play," Long opened with. "We’ve had a couple overtime games with them over the past few years and all the games have been fairly close. We expect a very competitive football game in a tough environment.”

Long said that playing in cold weather and playing in elevation doesn't make a difference.  "We don’t talk about it (cold weather). We try not to think about it. All you’re doing is putting question marks in your mind."

Long says all the players are healthy going into Saturday night. “Everybody that played last week should be able to play this week. They’re all beat up, but I’m sure Nevada is beat up too. This time of year, anybody that is playing extended reps has bumps, bruises, strains, pulls, but both teams have those issues."

Over the past few weeks, younger players are getting more opportunities to play.  Long is pretty pleased with their development. “We have some very good athletes coming up in this program. We have some potentially some very good players coming up through the program. Like everybody, they need experience and while they were out (on the field), there were a lot of mistakes being made. But they were doing it full speed and them getting to play really helps our program. You get some of that newness out of their system and next time they’re out there they will be better and the next time they will be better than that. Athletically we have some really good guys coming up. That experience really helps the development of our program so there’s no drop off when the real good seniors leave.”

Even though senior running back and Heisman candidate Donnel Pumphrey needs more stats for national attention, Long is not concerned about that. “We don’t worry about getting him his yards. We worry about getting him the number of touches that he needs to get for us to win."

But Wells was filled with praise for his teammate. “I think that he definitely deserves it (the Heisman). He’s the leading rusher in the nation. It would be great to see him up there. He should be represented up there. Hopefully he will be up there in New York in December. That will be great for our program.

“I think everybody knows about DJ. He’s been doing this for four years now. If they don’t know about him, they should start doing some research. He’s top 5 now all-time in rushing. He’s a great player. I think people are starting to really notice that this season. We just need to keep opening up holes and letting him do his thing.”

Long is also pleased with the play of junior transfer wide receiver and kick returner Quest Truxton. "Everybody in our program, whether you are on scholarship or not, gets the opportunity to prove that they can play and contribute or that they can’t play. We took him because of what we saw on film. He was a pretty good wide receiver and he did a good job of returning punts. He had a little learning curve where he struggled early on, but he’s turned out to be a very good player and he’s getting better as he goes. That’s a benefit to all of us in the program. A lot of the guys on our team that are really good players we took that nobody else wanted. Those are the kind of kids we get. They have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, they work hard at it, they’re team guys and they’re fun to be around.”

Phillips says the defense is faster than last year. “I think we’re a lot faster. We lost a few players, but we’re still the same team."

The Aztecs are in the Mountain West championship game to be played December 3rd, but Wells is staying focused. “It’s exciting to be playing in the Mountain West Championship game for a second year in a row, but our work’s not done yet. Just because we got to the championship game, doesn’t mean we won it yet. We want to win every game. We want to be 1-0 every week. That’s our mindset.”

Phillips echoed his teammate. “We just take it one game at a time. Our goal is to win a championship so we are working to get there.”

The Aztecs take on the Wolfpack in Reno at 7:30 p.m. Saturday night.  You can watch the game on CBS Sports Network.


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