SAN DIEGO — After giving up 90 points in a dismal loss at Arizona State on Tuesday night, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher challenged the Aztecs to be tougher on defense.

They responded.

With a tight defense fueling an impressive transition game, Devin Watson scored 20 points before leaving with a cramp midway through the second half and Malik Pope scored nine of his 16 points during a 24-2 run in the first half that carried SDSU to an 83-52 victory against McNeese State on Friday night.

“A step forward, defensively more than anything else,” Dutcher said. “When you give up 90 points, you’re going to emphasize defense. We emphasize it all the time anyway. We challenged them, talked about a level of toughness at the defensive end. And you can’t just say you’ve got to play tougher. What does that mean? It means do your job every time. If you’re supposed to help, help. If you’re supposed to run back, run back.”

The Aztecs (2-1) had a six-point halftime lead at ASU three nights earlier before its defense fell apart in the second half of a 90-68 loss.

The mindset Friday night, Pope said, was “just play harder and smarter and tougher than we did against ASU. Honestly, that’s as simple as it gets.”

Watson, a transfer from San Francisco, crumpled to the court after making a layup for a 64-33 lead midway through the second half. He was tended to for a few minutes with a cramp in his right leg before walking off under his own power. He also had eight assists.

Trey Kell (13 points), Watson and Pope helped the Aztecs to leads of 9-0 and 13-2 before the Cowboys (1-2) pulled within two.

That’s when the Aztecs took off on their big run, starting with a 3-pointer by Jordan Schakel, en route to a 37-13 lead. Pope made two free throws, a layup off a steal, a 3-pointer and a layup off a nice pass from Watson. Jeremy Hemsley hit a 3 and Schakel hit another one from behind the arc.

“I felt it really started on the defensive end for us,” Pope said. “It usually gets us going and tonight it really did.”

Said Watson: “When we got defensive stops, it allowed our transition game to be in full effect.”

The Aztecs held the Cowboys to 31.3 percent shooting and had six blocked shots, including three by Kameron Rooks. SDSU also forced the Cowboys into a handful of shot-clock violations.

McNeese State’s only points during the SDSU run came on a jumper by Quattarius Wilson. The Cowboys went nearly 4 ½ minutes before scoring again, on two free throws by Jarren Greenwood to make it 37-15.

The Cowboys came in with three players, Kalob Ledoux, James Harvey and Greenwood, averaging in double figures, but none of them cracked double digits. The Cowboys were led by Wilson with 15.

“Their transition game was very good tonight,” McNeese State coach Dave Simmons said. “For us to be in games, we’ve got to have Kalob and James hit shots for us in our perimeter game. We’ve got to have some threes from them and we didn’t get that tonight.”

SDSU led 46-19 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

McNeese State: The Cowboys rarely play California teams. They’re 0-3 against SDSU and 2-4 overall against teams from the Golden State. SDSU is the only Mountain West school to have played the Cowboys.

San Diego State: The Aztecs were able to quickly move on from the debacle against ASU. They came out running and playing good defense, holding the Cowboys to 25 percent shooting in the first half.

UP NEXT

McNeese State: The Cowboys head up the freeway to play at Loyola Marymount on Sunday.

San Diego State: The Aztecs will host Eastern Illinois on Monday night, the first time they’ve hosted an Ohio Valley Conference school.