- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2017

SAN DIEGO (AP) - Malik Pope was back with San Diego State for the first time since Dec. 22, giving the Aztecs the kind of boost they’ll need the rest of the season.

Sidelined for six games with a knee injury, the 6-10 junior forward played a solid 23 minutes to help the Aztecs beat Utah State 74-55 Saturday night. He had nine points and five rebounds, while Matt Shrigley and Jeremy Hemsley scored 14 points apiece and Trey Kell had 12.

“Let’s hope the Malik sighting we had tonight will be here from now on,” coach Steve Fisher said. “After the game he said he felt pretty good; we need to keep him heading in the right direction.”

With Pope sidelined, the three-time defending Mountain West Conference champion Aztecs (10-7, 2-3) stumbled badly by losing their first three league games.

“I know the addition of Malik Pope makes everybody more comfortable,” Fisher said. “I told him before the game, ‘Welcome back. We need you for the long haul now, we need you for the duration Don’t try to do things too quickly, too fast. Be basic.’ And I thought for the first opportunity since Dec. 22 he did a pretty good job.”

Pope said he got fatigued toward the end of the game but otherwise felt fine.

“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “It’s a better feeling to get a W. That’s ultimate.”

Although he didn’t start, Pope had a hand in the Aztecs’ run of making 12 straight baskets in the first half.

“Having him out there is a huge plus for us,” Shrigley said. “When you play at a pace like we played tonight and he does his moves and knows what to do, it’s great.”

Said Utah State coach Tim Duryea: “Lucky us that that he came back tonight.”

Sam Merrill scored 18 and Jalen Moore 13 for the Aggies (8-9, 2-4).

Hemsley hit a 3-pointer three minutes into the game to start the string of 12 straight baskets, which carried the Aztecs to a 31-15 lead after Shrigley made consecutive 3-pointers midway through the half. Shrigley made another jumper, Trey Kell had two jumpers and Hemsley added another 3-pointer and a layup.

Utah State then went on a 14-0 run, capped by Moore’s 3-pointer, to pull to 31-29. The Aztecs scored the next 10 points, including two straight shots by Malik Pope and a 3-pointer by Shrigley. SDSU led 41-34 at halftime.

SDSU went on an 11-0 run to open the second half, including a jumper and a 3-poiniter by Dakarai Allen and two buckets by Zylan Cheatham.

Shrigley was 4 of 6 from 3-point range and the Aztecs made 10 of 24.

Duryea said SDSU’s big run in the first half was just too much.

“Your offense can’t keep up no matter how good you’re playing - that’s home or road - if the other team is making that many shots. They played extremely well. But we didn’t compete hard enough defensively. We just didn’t make enough defensive plays.”

BIG PICTURE

Utah State: The Aggies have lost eight straight to the Aztecs.

San Diego State: Pope also missed the season’s first three games with the knee injury. He wore a pair of lime-green Air Jordans.

UP NEXT

Utah State hosts Colorado State next Saturday night.

San Diego State visits UNLV on Tuesday night.

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