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164: San Diego State’s remarkable number takes its place in history

The news of the actual occurrence is relatively old by now, but the enormity of what happened Saturday in San Diego should not fade away.

When the San Diego State Aztecs lost to the Boise State Broncos after leading with five minutes left in the second half, a number became enshrined in the annals of sports history. One of the greatest streaks we’ll ever witness found its final resting place.

It went straight to heaven, marked by immortality.

Any sports historian knows the numbers and what they mean without having to look them up.

56 — Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak in 1941.

2,130 — Lou Gehrig’s record of consecutive Major League Baseball games played, exceeded by Cal Ripken a couple of decades ago.

47 — Oklahoma football’s winning streak under Bud Wilkinson in the 1950s.

88 — UCLA basketball’s winning streak under John Wooden in the early 1970s.

These and other numbers are seared into the public memory of the college sports community. They endure because they mean something. They live on because of the achievements they represent.

Such is the case — or at least, such ought to be the case — with San Diego State’s winning streak when leading with five minutes left in regulation.

Kawhi Leonard is just one of dozens of men who helped San Diego State compile one of the greatest streaks in sports history: 164.

Kawhi Leonard is just one of dozens of men who helped San Diego State compile one of the greatest streaks in sports history: 164.

It’s mind-boggling in its own right and on its own terms, removed from any other context. How does one team never fall off the precipice when leading with five minutes left in a game? It’s not as though a team will always lead by eight, or 12, or 16 points at a specific point in time. San Diego State has carried many leads of only two, three or four points into the crunch-time segment of a contest over the past six years. Being able to pull off 164 straight wins in such situations is nothing short of ridiculous, without need for any other qualifiers, caveats, or colorful details.

Yet, if one prefers added context, the fuller reality of San Diego State’s achievement is magnified by the kind of program Steve Fisher has coached over the years.

San Diego State would rarely if ever be accused of being an elegant team. The Aztecs are well-coached to be sure, but the rosters which have come and gone through the Montezuma Mesa have not ordinarily been blessed with pure shooters. Defense, rebounding, and length in the paint have become the foundations of the Aztecs’ modus operandi under Fisher. This has always been a defense-first program. Yet, with that having been said, San Diego State has played a lot of root-canal games since January 9, 2010.

Ever since that loss to Wyoming — in a game the Aztecs led at the 5:00 mark of the second half — SDSU has often struggled to score in the latter stages of a contest.

Not once in a six-year period did Team Tenochtitlan fall victim to a late rally. Not once did a crazy bounce of the ball, or a questionable whistle, or a missed front end of a 1-and-1 — or any of the million other things which can happen at the end of a chaotic sporting event played by a lot of 19- and 20-year-olds — prevent San Diego State from holding a five-minute lead.

For 164 straight games, the Aztecs were airtight, the surest thing in sports when leading after 35 minutes. The Kansas City Royal bullpen of the past two seasons is even a little bit jealous.

Only Saturday did something finally go wrong against Boise State. Moreover, something went SPECTACULARLY wrong, underscoring how wildly abnormal the occurrence really was.

Clang.

Clang.

Clang.

Clang.

Clang.

Clang.

Clang.

San Diego State had to miss seven straight free throws — not one make in the whole batch — to enable Boise State to steal a win in Viejas Arena. The owners of the outright Mountain West title in 2016, the Aztecs aren’t going to lose too much sleep about this game. They already knew they have to win the Mountain West Tournament to reach the NCAA tournament. This result merely confirms what was already suspected. (It also affirms how rotten a sports cycle this has been for the Mountain West, but that’s another story.)

Yet, for all the ways in which SDSU might not worry too much about this defeat, it’s worth emphasizing: The Aztecs had to collapse on a massive scale at the foul line to bring their magnificent streak to an end.

This wasn’t a streak easily finished with an overwhelming display from San Diego State’s opponent. This streak wasn’t stopped by a towering individual performance or a series of coaching chess moves from the Boise State side. This result flowed from San Diego State’s own errant shooting, the very ingredient which — someway, somehow — had not stood in the Aztecs’ way since early January of 2010.

164.

Let the number linger.

It’s now part of sports history, thanks to Kawhi Leonard and the many other men who have played basketball for San Diego State over the past six years.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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