When the calendar turns to March, every team dreams of a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. To be remembered in March, players must make winning plays in the final moments.
In regulation, Matt Bradley failed the test. He missed his free throw attempt on a one-and-one in a tie game.
With a minute left in overtime, Trey Alexander made a game-changing and-one layup to give Creighton their first lead since 15:02 in the first half.
The following possession, Trey Pulliam’s layup rolled off the rim. Aguek Arop’s follow was short. With three seconds left, SDSU could not even get a shot up.
Game over, season over. Aztecs loss, another heartbreaker. Creighton wins 72-69 and advances to the Round of 32.
“That’s March, the agony and ecstasy of March,” Head Coach Brian Dutcher said. “To Creighton’s credit, they closed the game and beat us.”
SDSU felt good about their chances to advance with 37 points at halftime, led by 14 points at one point, but only by seven after 20 minutes. In typical fashion, they could not put the Blue Jays away. Creighton kept the game to single digits for the entirety of the second half and finally cut the lead to one possession with a minute left.
The second half for SDSU featured multiple scoring droughts and an inability to score when it mattered most.
“I felt like we gave them the game, we had it in our hands,” Pulliam said.
Multiple times over the course of the week, Dutcher said he wants the team to play loose and play with swagger. In Dutcher’s previous NCAA tournament games, he felt his Aztec teams were playing too tight. This week he wanted them to play boldly.
Early on, there was no fear of making a mistake from the Aztecs. Matt Bradley played aggressively. Chad Baker-Mazara found his mid-range jumper. After missing the game-winning floater against Boise State, Trey Pulliam continued to soar through the lane off one foot.
This was a big game for Pulliam. A chance to redeem himself after a loss last year in the NCAA tournament. The game was played in Fort Worth, which is three hours away from his hometown. This was his first game played in front of his three-year-old.
“It’s a dream come true,” Pulliam said this week. “I haven’t been there in three years. I’m definitely looking forward to going there and seeing my family and friends come out.”
Pulliam hit a massive basket with four minutes to play. As the shot clock expired, he hit a three-pointer while smothered by a defender to extend the Aztec lead to nine. It appeared to be the dagger. But for the remainder of the regulation, the Aztecs did not score a single point.
The Aztecs lost the game in areas they struggled in all season. They were outrebounded 41-32. They shot 10-for-17 from the free-throw line while Creighton was 20-24 from the charity stripe. Again, the Aztecs made more field goals than their opponent and lost. The Aztecs also struggled against the full-court press. This created the SDSU offense to get out of sync and was a reason for going scoreless to end regulation.
“Normally, by this time in March, I’m figuring out my offseason workouts,” Matt Bradley said before the game. This is why Bradley came to SDSU, to play for a winning team in the tournament.
“I just want to have fun and try to win,” Bradley said. “This is a big moment, but it’s just another game.”
Bradley introduced himself immediately as he made the first basket of the game. He was involved offensively but struggled to make his typical baskets. A month ago, he missed two crucial free throws against Boise State and lost the game. Thursday, the moment became too big again. The 80% free throw shooter missed the front end of a one-of-one, and the game was sent to overtime. But something to note, he did not hang his head. He got back on defense and forced Kaluma to take a shot out of bounds at the buzzer. He finished the game with 16 points.
“I knew this was my second chance that coach Dutch and I have talked about,” Bradley said. “It comes down to belief, swagger, something that I have been lacking for pretty much this whole season. During this offseason, I definitely have to do some soul searching and figure out what it is mentally because it doesn’t come down to skill.”
Chad Baker-Mazara was on fire in the first half and scored 13 points in five minutes. He had a transition slam. Then followed it up with three different made jumpers while getting fouled. He continued his aggression. He finished the game as the Aztecs’ leading scorer with 17 but only played five minutes in the second half.
“He’s gotta become better defensively,” Dutcher said. “We put the guys in the game we thought would win for us down the stretch.”
“We’ll know within the first five minutes how they are calling the game,” Dutcher said before the game. “You never know what it’s going to be until you get there. Everybody calls it differently and we’ll have to adjust to the crew that we have.”
The officials did not call a tight whistle in the first half. But Lamont Butler’s defensive ball pressure led to quick fouls. He picked up his second foul by the second TV timeout and Nathan Mensah picked up his second just 12 minutes into the game. Bradley then picked up his second towards the end of the half. Through this first-half foul trouble, the Blue Jays crept back into the game.
In the second half, SDSU received some questionable calls. Bradley picked up his third foul early in the second half. Mensah picked up his fourth with eight minutes left. He then fouled out in regulation.
“All hands on deck,” Dutcher said before the tournament. An advantage for an SDSU team with a much deeper bench.
Creighton relies on a seven-man rotation. Creighton used one player off their bench in the first half, and the Aztecs dominated with fresh legs. They finished the game with a 30-1 bench points advantage.
The short bench was problematic when the Blue Jays starting point guard, Trey Alexander, picked up four fouls early in the second half. Arthur Kaluma also picked up his fourth with 10 minutes left in the second half. In overtime, their lineup got thinner. Their star player, Ryan Kalkbrenner, was injured and Alex O’Connell fouled out.
But the Blue Jays overcame all the adversity.
Three weeks ago, the Blue Jays lost their starting point guard, Ryan Nembhard. Creighton finished the year ranking 312th in the NCAA in offensive turnovers, a recipe for disaster against a pressuring team like the Aztecs.
But freshman Alexander has stepped up in his place. He was the reason for the Blue Jays’ victory. He hit clutch shots and finished as the game’s leading scorer at 18.
Creighton has not fared well against top defenses this season. SDSU is the only top 10 defense they have played. Coming in, they were 0-7 in games played against top 30 defenses. Even though the Blue Jays turned the ball over 20 times, they captured a win against the second-ranked defense in the nation.
Adam Seiko faced off against his brother Arthur Kaluma. Their parents rooted for both teams with shirts representing both teams. In the second half, Kaluma backed Seiko down in the post and scored over him. The following possession, the older brother Seiko answered with a deep three. Later, Kaluma answered a Seiko basket with the Blue Jays first three-pointer of the game.
The Mountain West Conference was rooting hard for SDSU tonight. All season, the league has been praised for having one of their best years. But less than four hours into the first day of the tournament, Wyoming, Colorado State, and Boise State were all out. The Mountain West is now 1-10 in opening games since 2016.
With the loss tonight, the Aztecs add to the conference’s eight-game losing streak in the NCAA Tournament.
The disappointed players will now return to San Diego and dream about a run in 2022-2023.