SDSU tames the Cougars to advance in the NCAA Tournament
SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher took over for legendary coach Steve Fisher in 2017. The dynamic coaching duo arrived on the Mesa 18 years earlier, in March of 1999. Together they transformed the Aztecs into a national program and gave a basketball-starved city something to cheer for.
Dutcher’s first recruiting class brought Adam Seiko to the program. The next year, the Aztecs added Nathan Mensah and Aguek Arop. SDSU’s head coach has mentioned multiple times how much these players have meant to him. The first game Dutcher coaches next season will be his first without Seiko on the bench.
The Aztecs did not miss a beat when Dutcher slid over one chair because the trio helped bridge the transition from one coach to the next. As a head coach, Dutcher has shaken hands with his counterpart at the end of the game 192 times.
On 146 of those occasions, he was the winning coach due in large part to these players. Dutcher has won six Mountain West Titles in six seasons because Seiko, Mensah, and Arop helped establish the culture of the program under Dutcher.
What this trio had never delivered for their beloved leader was an NCAA Tournament victory. That changed on Thursday afternoon in Orlando when the Aztecs defeated the College of Charleston 63-57
“Not really,” Dutcher said postgame when asked he felt relief. “Every season is its own season. You can’t obsess over (past performances), or you’re going to stress yourself.”
Heading into the contest, the biggest question mark for the Cougars was their ability to play against the Aztecs’ size and athleticism. Dutcher designed a play after the opening tip to capitalize on that advantage. Nathan Mensah won the tip into the hands of Lamont Butler. Butler walked the ball up the court and dished a lob to Keshad Johnson for a quick 2-0 lead. It would be the only lead for SDSU for most of the opening 20 minutes.
SDSU’s point guard struggles gave Charleston an 8-6 lead. Butler and Darrion Trammell both had early turnovers. Trammell also fouled Charleston on a three-point make, giving the Cougars a four-point play.
Turnovers continued to be the theme of the first half. The Aztecs held the Cougars to only 12 points over the next nine minutes, but they gave the ball away and only scored seven points themselves.
SDSU looked nervous and out of sorts trailing by as many as seven until Arop calmed the nerves of the team. With 7:10 left, he hit a post hook on the left block. Micah Parrish made a layup in space Arop created. Charleston made shots of their own, but the Aztecs finally settled into the game.
“As much as you say, ‘it’s just another game of basketball, don’t be nervous. Be the best version of you.’ there are nerves that go into this tournament,” Dutcher explained. “I thought we were nervous at the start but settled in and played a very solid basketball game.”
SDSU made an 11-0 run on the heels of Arop’s insertion in the game. Butler hit a three. Arop added a second hook in the lane. Jaedon LeDee’s offensive rebound and putback tied the game at 24 at the under-four-minute media break.
LeDee was fouled on another offensive rebound and converted both free throws to give the Aztecs its first lead since the game’s opening basket. Matt Bradley made a wide-open layup to cap the run.
Charleston responded with a run of their own. SDSU’s momentum ended when Micah Parrish fouled Reyne Smith on a three. Another Trammell turnover gave the Cougars a layup on the other end. Undeterred by the sloppiness of the contest, the Aztecs punched back.
Bradley manhandled his way for a layup. LeDee did the same for another score. SDSU concluded the half on a 15-5 stretch and led by four at intermission.
At the break, Bradley led all scorers with nine points. He was 4-of-9 from the field. LeDee added six off the bench. Charleston was paced by Smith, who had seven, and Dalton Bolton, with five. SDSU shot 46.4% from the field, but its 11 turnovers prevented it from building a larger lead.
The Aztecs’ defense was terrific. It held the Cougars to 37% shooting and only 27.3% from deep. For a team averaging 80 points a contest, Charleston’s offense was out of sorts the entire half. Bolton, in particular, had trouble playing against the taller SDSU players. Johnson and Arop guarded him. They held him to 2-of-6 from the field.
SDSU had a rebounding edge of 11, a 10-0 advantage on second-chance points, and had a 9-8 points-off-turnovers advantage.
“We’ve got big, strong players, and we’re willing to throw the ball inside,” Dutcher said postgame.
Charleston opened the second half with more urgency. They played quicker than the Aztecs. Got to lose balls, continued to force miscues on the offensive end, and grabbed an offensive rebound to tie the game at 34.
Trammell took three threes in the first few possessions. The first two were open looks that he missed. He drilled the more contested one to put the Aztecs on top 37-34. Butler picked up his third foul of the game on the next defensive possession, but it did not stop SDSU’s offense.
Johnson and LeDee took advantage of their superior size. They each scored and pushed the lead to seven. Charleston sensing the momentum swing, called a timeout with SDSU up 41-34.
The Cougars momentarily halted the onslaught with a bucket. The Aztecs continued to go inside. Butler, back in the game, added a layup. Arop added a dunk.
Bolon hit a three on the wing against LeDee, who did not put his hand up on the switch. Johnson was fouled on a lob to take the game into under the twelve-minute stoppage. He made both free throws coming out of the timeout, pushing the lead to eight at 47-39.
The energy Charleston continued to exert showed why they won 31 games this year. Long rebounds that SDSU had grabbed in the first half started to find their way into the Cougars’ hands. They hit a three and a pair of hustle layups to pull to three. Charleston launched multiple threes to tie, but the attempts mercifully rimmed out.
With everyone crashing the class, SDSU got a layup from Bradley, who was pounded by a defender with no call. The Aztecs led 51-46 with 6:40 remaining.
At the four-minute media timeout, SDSU had a slim four-point advantage, with Charleston headed to the free-throw line for a pair of shots. Both were hit, and the game was within one possession.
As the first-round games in the previous years came down to the final possessions, Aztec Nation sweated out the final moments of Thursday’s contest.
Another turnover led to a goaltend and a tie game at 54. With 2:40 left, Dutcher called a timeout to put Butler and Arop back in the contest. In the most crucial stretch of the season, SDSU’s head coach went with Bradley, LeDee, Parrish, Arop, and Butler.
Out of the timeout, Bradley worked for a layup. The Aztecs had the ball again following a miss with a chance to extend the lead. Stuck without his dribble on the right elbow, Arop patiently waited for someone to break free. With the shot clock running down, Parrish stroked a three to give SDSU a five-point advantage with 1:35 left.
“I know I am a confident shooter,” Parrish said postgame. “I feel like every shot I take, I’m going to make, so when I seen I was open, I shot it. That’s it. I didn’t really over think it. Each shot I take, I don’t think about the last shot I missed or the last shot I made.”
Following a Charleston timeout, SDSU’s defense held against. Arop secured the defensive rebound, but the Aztecs could not convert. Mensah missed a runner and fouled, fighting for the rebound.
Ben Burham hit a pair of bonus free throws. With 54.5 left, SDSU had the ball up three. Butler dribbled down the clock. Eventually, Bradley launched a contested three but was inexplicably hacked on the attempt. Bradley, in the same position he was a year ago against Creighton, hit two of three to give the Aztecs a 60-55 lead.
“No, not flashbacks from last year, but mainly Colorado State, Wyoming, earlier in the season when I knocked down some big free throws, other times when I’ve knowocked down big shots or free throws earlier in my career,” Bradley said postgame when asked if he recalled the misses against Creighton. “All of the negativity, if you hold on to those, it’s going to allow you to mess up the opportunity that’s in front of you. I’m just thinking positive things.”
The Cougars got a very quick layup and called their final timeout with 18.2 seconds left. Charleston set up their full-court defense, and the Aztecs, who had trouble inbounding the ball and handling full court pressure all year, handled the moment perfectly.
Seiko, who came in because of his prowess at the line, inbounded to Parrish, who leaped over the double and gave the ball back to Seiko. Charleston was forced to foul.
The player who came in with Dutcher walked to the line with the chance to give his coach an NCAA Tournament win. He delivered, hitting one to extend the lead to four. Another miss and a pair of Parrish free throws ended the game.
Dutcher entered the postgame handshake, a winner 101 more times than he has lost. SDSU won 63-57.
Bradley led the way with 17 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. LeDee and Arop both had eight points. LeDee poured in a very strong ten-rebound performance. Butler pitched in seven and five assists.
The Aztecs continue dancing. They play the No.13 seed Furman on Saturday. Furman upset fourth-seed Virginia earlier in the day.
When asked how playing Furman sounded to him as he left the court, Dutcher said, “sounds good to me.”
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.