SDSU falls short for the National Championship
Over 48 hours ago, the Aztecs left the arena with smiles on their faces. They defeated FAU at the buzzer and made NCAA history by advancing to the championship game.
But on Monday Night, it was the Huskies leaving the arena with smiles. Three different players scored over 15 points, and they proved to be the best team in college basketball.
The Aztecs knew it was going to take a complete 40 minutes to defeat UCONN. Unfortunately for them, they had one of their worst offensive performances of the season in the first half.
They dug themselves into a deep hole, and no matter how many times they built momentum in the second half, they could not climb out of it.
They were the closest they had ever been to becoming National Champions but fell short. UCONN wins 76-59 and gets the honor of holding the NCAA trophy and cutting down nets. The deficit may have been 17 points, but it was no blowout.
“We weren’t at our best tonight, and we had to be at our best to win the game,” Coach Brian Dutcher said. “I’m proud of our guys.”
Years from now, Aztec fans will look back at this season with pride. SDSU made the National Championship and greatly exceeded expectations. Losing to UCONN, who dominated every opponent in the NCAA tournament. SDSU had no reason to hang its head when the final buzzer sounded.
But that’s not how this SDSU team approaches games. When they play their best brand of basketball for 40 minutes, they expect to win every time they go out on the floor. They were one elite performance away from being National Champions and proving doubters wrong again.
To defeat the Huskies, it would take the team to play free and loose. Pregame, the players appeared confident. As the song “Blow the Whistle” played throughout the arena, Keshad Johnson danced while he and his teammates attempted ludicrous dunks. Demarshay Johnson Jr. finished warm-ups with a Vince Carter slam as he hung on the rim with his forearms in the hoop.
There were no championship game nerves for the Aztecs to begin the game as they made their first three attempts. At the first TV timeout, they led 10-8. Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell both hit threes. They were excited to run back to the huddle with a lead.
“We got to a red-hot start in the game offensively,” Dutcher said.
Then the Aztecs went through a field goal drought that lasted seemingly forever.
After starting the game 4-for-5, they went 2-for-21 over the next 15 minutes. They went over 11 minutes without a field goal, missed 14 consecutive shots, and found themselves trailing by 16 with 2:55 remaining in the half—a scoring drought at the worst time of the season.
The unbearable offense hurt the defense.
Out of frustration on one side of the floor, the Aztecs did not play sound defense. Their turnovers led to transition offense which ignited the Huskies from beyond the arc. Throughout the NCAA Tournament, UCONN put teams away through scoring runs. Their 26-10 run in the first half ballooned their lead.
The Huskies created open looks for themselves through creative offensive sets. They used Adama Sanogo to create deep paint position. The SDSU defense double-teamed, which caused confusion for them when he passed out of the post.
After 20 minutes, they shot 15-for-30 from the field, while the Aztecs shot 28.6% with nine turnovers.
There were multiple looks deep in the paint that did not fall for the Aztecs. “Their length bothered us at the rim,” Dutcher said.
The Aztecs looked completely out of sorts for most of the half, yet they had to feel good that they were only trailing 12 at the break. A deficit they have conquered before.
“I just said when we were down at halftime, let’s cut it to six with 10 (minutes) to go,” Dutcher said. “Let’s make them play a close game, make the margin where it’s uncomfortable.”
To start the second half, Jordan Hawkins drove down the lane for a wide-open slam, and it flew off the back of the rim into the backcourt. Matt Bradley broke his defender’s ankles on the following possession, then swished a step-back jumper.
If the dunk went down, NRG stadium would have erupted in Huskie faithful and continued their momentum from the first 20 minutes. It allowed the Aztecs to finally settle in. They started hitting shots and found their way to the free-throw line. But so did the Huskies, which kept their lead over double digits.
Darrion Trammell found openings in the UCONN defense. But within the first five minutes of the half, he picked up three fouls and was forced to sit down. By the 13:04 mark, the Huskies were in the bonus.
At the second TV timeout, UCONN led 49-36. The Aztecs had their opportunities to trim the deficit to single digits but failed. Still, the Huskies struggled to put the Aztecs away.
The Huskies experienced something unique to them; their opponent refused to go away. Throughout the NCAA tournament, they have blown out their opponents and have avoided facing pressure in the waning moments.
The Aztecs continued to hang around. They trailed 56-45 at the 8:33 mark, and UCONN burned a timeout to halt the SDSU momentum.
“We knew that when we were down, it wasn’t over with,” Adam Seiko said.
SDSU would not go away. Keshad Johnson pulled up for a confident three on the perimeter, bang. The arena was on fire, with Aztec fans proud of their team that never quits.
“I like the grit on my team; I like how hard we fight,” Dutcher said. “We don’t give in; we came from 14 down the last game. When we cut it to five, I think there were people in the stands who thought, hey, they’re capable of doing it again.”
With 6:58 to play, Johnson went to the foul line with the Aztecs down eight. A minute and a half later, he trimmed the deficit down to five. The Aztec faithful lit up the stadium.
But Hawkins brought life back into the Huskies with an early dagger as his enormous three-pointer from the top of the key pushed the lead back to eight.
“I’m not gonna lie; they got a lot of weapons,” Bradley said. “They were pretty good; to beat them, we had to make shots.”
At the final TV timeout, the Aztecs were down eight, looking at their last four minutes left in the season, needing one final heroic comeback to be NCAA champions.
But their lucky loose ball, series of defensive stops, or a barrage of made shots never came. The Huskies converted their free throws, wasted the clock out, and the Aztecs ran out of time. As the buzzer sounded, the Aztecs realized they dug themselves in too big of a hole.
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.