San Diego State is ready for the National Championship

For 31 minutes and 42 seconds, the FAU Owls had a lead over the Aztecs. But, they did not finish with the lead due to Lamont Butler's buzzer beater. He made history and the Aztecs are still dancing. (Don De Mars /EVT)

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NRG Stadium erupted after Butler’s buzzer-beater. The Aztec faithful was loud and proud. There was a clear home crowd advantage for the Red and Black. (Don De Mars / EVT)

87-63, 70-55, 88-65, 82-54, and 72-59. 

UCONN has been the best team in the NCAA Tournament. 

Lamont Butler’s last-second heroics gave SDSU a chance to do what no other team in the field has been able to do to date, give the Huskies a game.

In the tourney, UCONN is averaging 79.8 points and giving up only 59.2. They are shooting 49.5% from the field, 40.3% from three, and 76.8% from the line. They have a +10.8 rebounding margin and average 20.2 assists per game. 

The Huskies manhandled Saint Mary’s in the Round of 32. They took the shirt off Arkansas in the Sweet 16. Both teams defeated the Aztecs this season. UCONN is the favorite, and for good reason. Among the media gathered in Houston, there is a feeling of inevitability. 

SDSU told a different narrative Sunday.

“We’re not satisfied,” Matt Bradley said. “When you keep winning these games, it’s like you want one more, one more, one more, and I think that’s the mentality for us. We always want to get that next one. For a lot of us, we got a lot of seniors on the team, so this is my last college game, win or loss, and I don’t want to go out on a loss, and I think that’s a feeling for a lot of guys on the team.”

Lamont Butler addresses the media on Sunday (Don De Mars/EVT)

Remembering their roots

SDSU is an underdog tonight. It is a familiar role. The players in the program have been that their entire careers. Butler is from the Inland Empire, one of the most fertile recruiting areas for the Aztecs. 

A host of great Aztecs have come from the IE. While technically part of the Greater Los Angeles Area, in the basketball world, there is a great divide between LA and IE schools. LA schools get publicity and opportunities with minimal effort. The IE is always looking for respect. 

“There are some really good players from the IE,” Butler explained. “Kawhi Leonard is probably the top of the top, but there are some really good underdogs. That’s the mentality the we go through. Los Angeles gets most of the respect, but we’re just hard-nosed guys. We’re just going to keep proving people wrong. I’m happy to be able to represent them at this stage.”

 In the National Title Game, UCONN is LA, SDSU is the IE.

Aguek Arop before FAU. (Don De Mars/EVT)

There is a common thread that runs throughout the history of Aztec basketball. The teams have been filled with athletes deemed not quite good enough to star at the highest levels. Through hard work, determination, and self-confidence, SDSU has earned its way into the national spotlight in Houston.  

The success of the 2022-2023 iteration is proof that the Aztecs of every year belonged. 

“When (former players) come back to San Diego State, they are coming back to their coaches,” head coach Brian Dutcher said on Friday. “Coach Fisher is still here. I’m here for 24 years. Dave Velasquez and Matt Soria have been in the program 20-plus years as students and worked their way up. It’s truly coming back to your family. It’s not just your university. It’s the familiar faces you spend all that time with. And we all share that vision of when one (team) does it, we all do it. And that’s really exciting.”

Respect is earned through tremendous effort

SDSU played most of the game against FAU on Saturday flat. Micah Parrish mentioned it postgame after the semifinal. Darrion Trammell reiterated it on Sunday. Only after they fell behind by 14 were they able to correct it. When they did, the Aztecs mounted a slow, methodical comeback culminating in Butler’s shot. 

Their age has shown up in major ways during the Tournament. Recognizing and changing the energy that they played with is as impressive as any physical advantage their maturity has given them. 

“Nobody is the same each and every day,” Keshad Johnson said on Sunday, sounding like a sports psychologist. “Emotion is something unpredictable. Going into the game, I don’t really have an answer as to why it was flat, but you could feel that it was flat. One thing about it is we are selfless, and we know how to fix that, so we fixed it.”

Preparing for the emotions of a Final Four is impossible, and there is no way to know which team will arrive with the capacity to compete at its best. That SDSU experienced that low on Saturday should allow them to be up for Monday. Tonight, they will compete with UCONN because they will play with an edge like they have something to prove. 

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Stay in the moment

With the title in arms reach, there is a danger of dreaming about the destination instead of focusing on the journey. This pitfall is the surest way to lose the typical fire that SDSU plays with. Nathan Mensah said that the Aztecs came back on Monday because they knew there was “no magic shot that could give you 14 points right away. It was just one stop, one bucket at a time.” 

This is the approach the Aztecs enter today with. More than anyone else, this tournament has taught Matt Bradley how to stay in the moment.

Bradley was sensational on Saturday. It was a far cry from the previous week. SDSU’s star guard learned that dreaming about what could be prevented him from enjoying what was in front of him.

Matt Bradley on Saturday night against FAU. (Don De Mars/EVT)

“I’ve matured so much in this month as a player,” Bradley said Sunday. “… I’ve just learned to be in the moment. I’ve got to be present. I can’t think about the future. I can’t really think about holding the trophy tomorrow. I just got to think about having fun. When you’re really present-minded, it doesn’t add pressure.”

Media across the world has picked UCONN to win tonight. Those predictions may prove correct. But there is something about this team, this program, and this moment. 

San Diego State is ready for the National Championship.

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