SAN DIEGO — Freshman Matt Mitchell had five points at halftime of his third start for San Diego State.
By the time he walked off the court with four minutes left in the game, he had earned a standing ovation.
Mitchell scored 26 of his season-high 31 points in the second half, and Malik Pope had 17 points and 11 rebounds to lead SDSU to a 94-63 victory against Eastern Illinois on Monday night.
Mitchell, a 6-foot-6 forward, went off after halftime, including hitting six 3-pointers. He finished with seven 3-pointers and made 10 of 14 shots overall.
He said his big night was due to “my teammates getting me open consistently. It just gave me the confidence that the shot would go in. I kept shooting and it went in, so kudos to my teammates.”
Cracked Pope: “There goes 30 right there. Leave him open.
“I think he did his job at an excellent level,” Pope said. “He knocked down the open shot. He let the game come to him. He played well.”
Mitchell had scored six, three and two points in the previous three games.
“We knew he was a very good shooter,” SDSU coach Brian Dutcher said. “It’s such a rhythm thing. Once he hit a couple, he just got on fire at that point. Obviously he’s going to be feeling good about himself so we’ve got to make sure in the next game we get him an open one right away, not a forced one, and hopefully we can ride that for a while.”
He got a standing ovation when he went to the bench with four minutes to play. His 31 points were a season-high for an SDSU player and the most for an SDSU freshman since Evan Burns had 31 in 2003. The previous high for an Aztecs player this year was 20, by Pope in a season-opening win against NAIA San Diego Christian and by Devin Watson against McNeese State.
While Mitchell came on strong after halftime, Pope was dominant from the start, making three shots in the first three minutes to help SDSU (3-1) take an 11-3 lead en route to another overwhelming victory. Pope had 16 points and nine rebounds in an 83-52 victory against McNeese State on Friday night.
The Aztecs once again played tight defense and raced to a 40-25 halftime lead before pulling away in the second half.
SDSU made 13 of 25 from 3-point range.
Trey Kell finished with 14 points and Watson, a junior transfer from San Francisco, had 10.
Jajuan Starks scored 17 for the Panthers (1-3) while Montell Goodwin had 14 and Michael Chavers 11.
“I’m glad we’re not playing San Diego State again,” Panthers coach Jay Spoonhour said. “They played really well. They shot it great. We couldn’t stay in front of them off the dribble in half court. Those two guards they’ve got are good. Not a lot went right for us. But they played really well. They kept us from getting good shots.”
STICKING UP FOR AN AZTEC
Dutcher finished his postgame news conference by wondering aloud the same thing Aztecs football fans are.
“I know I’m in a room of basketball experts but how is Rashaad Penny not a Doak Walker finalist?” Dutcher said. “I mean, thank goodness I’m working with basketball writers because football writers just can’t get it right.”
Penny, SDSU’s star senior running back, leads the country with 1,824 yards, with 17 rushing touchdowns, yet wasn’t among the three finalists for the award for the nation’s top running back.
The 6-10 Pope had a shot blocked early in the game by 6-9 Muusa Dama, who then said something to the SDSU player.
“He hit me with the ‘We ready,’ ” Pope said. “So I was like, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ I mean, I was ready. I wasn’t expecting him to be that long, honestly, and block my shot. I never get my shot blocked there. He wants to compete, talk a little trash, I ignore it and outplay them. That’s what I try to do.”
Eastern Illinois: The Panthers were facing the Aztecs for the first time in basketball. However, the Panthers are 1-1 against SDSU in football, including a 40-19 win in 2013 with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback.
San Diego St.: The Aztecs won their second straight game following an ugly loss at Arizona State last week. They get two days off before heading up the freeway for the eight-team Wooden Legacy, which also includes No. 21 Saint Mary’s, Washington State and Georgia.
Eastern Illinois: Hosts Fontbonne University on Friday night.
San Diego St.: The Aztecs face Sacramento State on Thursday night in the opening round of the Wooden Legacy at Cal State Fullerton.