“It’s March right now; it’s March 32nd, March 33rd,” Keshad Johnson said Sunday. “We’re extending March. The level of play between these four teams, kudos to everybody for making it this far…. It’s not failure even if you make it this far; it’s a thin line between victory and loss.”
The Aztecs made history. They are playing for a National Championship. They overcame top-seeded Alabama in the Sweet 16, converted a last-second free throw against Creighton, and Lamont Butler made the most memorable jump shot in SDSU history against FAU at the buzzer in the Final Four.
Now they are again underdogs. Facing Connecticut, a Huskie squad that has rolled over everyone in its way. The team knows it will take their best 40 minutes of the season to become NCAA champions.
“I’ve thought that we’ve been underdogs this whole tournament; that’s the mentality that went into it,” Lamont Butler said. “It’s the mentality we went to with every game, so we are gonna keep that mentality and keep on proving people wrong.”
Stopping Adama Sanogo
Sanogo is versatile and unlike any player that the Aztecs have seen all season. Kenpom ranks him as the ninth-best player in the nation. From Bamako, Mali, he has only played the game of basketball for six years. He is learning quickly and has been a matchup nightmare for opponents.
“He clears space in the paint, he gets deep paint touches, doesn’t even have to dribble,” assistant coach JD Pollock said. “As soon as he’s inside the three-point line, he’s carving space, and he’s good at it. He’s not fouling, he’s just big and strong, and he’s great with his feet. We got to do our work early and not let him get deep paint touches.”
In the game against Miami, the Hurricanes decided to protect the paint and leave Sanogo open on the perimeter. He cashed in on two open threes, a shot he rarely attempts. He finished the game with 21 points and ten rebounds. He’s averaging 18.2 points and 9.8 rebounds during the NCAA tournament.
Redshirt Freshman Demarshay Johnson Jr. has the responsibility of imitating Sanago on the SDSU scout team. He said, “He’s a dominant postman; he loves angles, can body anybody, and runs the floor really well.” Johnson also said that the Aztecs have not faced a big man like him this season.
Nathan Mensah will most likely take the responsibility of guarding him. The Aztecs have faced dominant big men such as Ryan Kalkbrenner and Charles Bediako during their tournament run. Mensah found success against both of them and a made strong impact on the game. It will take the best performance of the season for the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year for the Aztecs to stop Sanogo.
“I’m very excited,” Mensah said when asked about matching up with UCONN’s big men. “It’s like a gift. You have to make sure your ‘A’ game is out to be victorious.”
Against Creighton, Kalkbrenner was able to get deep paint position. Once he was next to the basket, there was nothing that could deter him. But when the Aztecs denied post position and forced him farther out, the SDSU defense found success. They will need a similar game plan against Sanago.
“They’re versatile, they play inside, they can shoot it, they can play fast, run sets in the halfcourt,” Pollock said. “It’ll take a full team effort.”
The Aztecs are not projected to win this game. Most experts will take the Huskies, and SDSU will need to play their best basketball of the season to have a shot.
Uconn is a dangerous team that has the capability of blowing out every opponent. They will go on runs against SDSU and grow a lead. The Aztecs must play their consistent brand of basketball for 40 minutes.
Against Alabama, the Aztecs looked like the superior team in the first half. The Crimson Tide punched back in the second, going on a 25-11 run in the first eight minutes to quickly lead by nine. Coach Brian Dutcher called a timeout to settle down his team.
SDSU was frustrated. At the timeout, Dutcher reminded the Aztecs to stick to the basics, play sound defense and not let their missed shots on offense affect their defensive performance. SDSU’s defensive intensity stepped up, and suddenly they were right back in the game.
Against FAU, trailing 14 in the second half, they recalled their comeback against Alabama. They regained focus in the huddle and believed in themselves. They also locked back in defensively.
“Yesterday at the timeout, the only thing they were frustrated about was that we didn’t have the lead,” Pollock said. “They thought they were going to win the entire game, all they were saying at the timeout was just, tighten up, another level!”
With 13:53 remaining, the Owls led 56-42, and we’re shooting 47.3% from the field with only four turnovers. For the remainder of the game, they shot 5-for-14 and turned the ball over six times.
SDSU is battle-tested. They have come back from deficits. Their self-belief has carried them into the championship game. Butler’s last-second shot proved that they use the entire 40 minutes to come out on top. They must have a next-play mentality and not let Uconn frustrate them if the Huskies create a lead.
“Just be patient, take it one play at a time; even though we were down 14, there was no magic shot that can give you 14 points right away,” Mensah said. “It’s just one stop, one bucket a time.”
One possession game
Uconn has been dominant. They are the #1 ranked team in Kenpom. They have the #3 rated offense and #8 rated defense. They have won 24 games by double digits. Their closest contest in the NCAA tournament was in the Final Four against Miami. They won by 13 and controlled the game for 40 minutes.
They are a heavy favorite in the championship, and it is well deserved.
But there are two juxtaposing sides to the Huskies. On one side, they are the dominant Uconn team, blowing opponents out of the water. But with so many dominating wins, they are uncomfortable when the game is close as they have less experience.
This is an advantage for the Aztecs; they have been in close contests all season. Each player can recall memories of making winning plays in crucial moments this season.
The Huskies are 6-5 in games that are decided by single digits. They are 1-5 in games decided by two possessions. The Aztecs, on the other hand, are 12-2 in games decided by six points or less.
“Be at your best when your best is required,” Coach Brian Dutcher said. “That’s what we’re going to try to do, try to play our best basketball. If they beat us at our best, then we’re gonna congratulate them and shake their hands. But if we play at our best, then we’ll have a chance to win the game.”
This means the Aztecs need to excel in the little areas. Yesterday, they struggled at the free-throw line. They shot 13-for-22 from the foul line for the game but were 4-for-12 in the final 6:45. Four different players missed shots at the charity stripe. If they had lost, this would have been the talking point. But going forward to the championship, they must execute.
“Just have to trust in your routine, we made enough to win,” Dutcher said. “You know, obviously, you want to make them all…, but that’s basketball; that’s pressure. Game on the line, step up and make them. It’s hard to do and easy to say. It’s never the same as shooting 100 out in another gym, shooting in the stadium with the game on the line; it was a hard thing.”
If the Aztecs can keep the game close, they will put the Huskies in uncomfortable territory. The Huskies may tighten up. Meanwhile, the Aztecs are comfortable in the waning moments as they have succeeded in them all season.
Class of 2022 at San Diego State University. Communication major and pursuing a sports journalism profession. Season ticket holder of the SDSU MBB team since 2011. Fondest memory of Viejas Arena is Aztec legend, Dwayne Polee sparking a 19-1 run over New Mexico to win the MW Conference in 2014.