The road ended in Houston for SDSU
The Road Ends Here
This message, plastered on the walls of NRG Stadium, filling commercials on televisions around the world, and adorning print and online media everywhere, cleverly communicates the reality of the final game played this evening in Houston.
Tracing the exact start of the road for San Diego State is a bit tougher to nail down. It started sometime this past summer. Most of the 2022-2023 team stayed in San Diego, sacrificing time with their family for focused time on the court.
“Throughout the summer, we were all playing,” Darrion Trammell said on Sunday when asked when they first realized how good they could be. “We’re like, ‘who is going to start? Where are the minutes going to go?’ In practice, we were going after each other, but the thing with that is we didn’t have any egos with it. After practice, we were in the locker room. We’d just sit there for two hours, all just talking, all just camaraderie and chemistry-building things. … That’s what carried us here.”
Their motto at the time, “hard work is undefeated,” continued to resonate on college basketball’s biggest stage even after falling to UCONN 76-59.
Deep in the bowels of the arena, between the players’ entrance and the locker room, there is a bulletin board with the phrase “Mark You Moment” in the center. Strategically placed throughout the board are red and black stars telling of moments of excellence from the NRG service team.
The Aztecs marked their moment in the 2023 NCAA with five wins that will reverberate throughout America’s Finest City forever.
When Charles E. Peterson led the Aztecs in their inaugural season in 1921 against the likes of First National Bank, Grossmont HS, and San Diego YMCA, no one could have guessed the heights this program would ascend.
Like everything about the little state college on Campanile Drive, it was an uphill battle for the Aztecs, who fought their way to national prominence. The experts may have finally been right on Monday in picking the Huskies over the Aztecs, but it should not be forgotten they were wrong the previous five games.
“Everybody is champions to even make it this far,” Keshad Johnson said postgame from SDSU’s locker room. “Everybody represented their school well. Shout out to FAU, UCONN, and Miami. We all made it here. We all made a name for ourselves. I’m proud of my guys. We made history to be here. We all going to hold our head up. Hopefully, everybody else is proud of us.”
The Final Four Came Down to Free Throws
The referees in Houston counted the number of free throws they awarded each team to make sure they called the game equitably. UCONN shot 13 free throws, and Miami shot 12 in their semifinal. SDSU shot 22, and FAU put up 21 in their matchup. Monday night, with 1:20 left in the contest, the count was 21-20 in UCONN’s favor before six late-game attempts.
Overall, fouls told the same story. Miami was whistled for 12 infractions and UCONN 11 on Saturday. SDSU and FAU both had 17 against them. The refs stopped playing 20 times against SDSU in the championship game and 15 times against UCONN, with the late-game situation skewing the results. In the entire tournament, SDSU was called for 102 fouls, and their opponents got 100 whistled against them.
Basketball has become nearly impossible to officiate. The goal in the NCAA tournament is to allow the players to determine the outcome, not the referees. Practically speaking, this means calling the game to ensure that the desired result shows up. If one team has more free throw attempts or fouls, expect the game to tilt in the other direction.
This dynamic allowed the Aztecs to come back against FAU, and it prevented them from doing so against UCONN. FAU built a 14-point lead in the second after Alijah Martin was given five free throws. SDSU had five foul shots for the game at the time, the Owls had 14. From that moment, the refs evened out the game and aided SDSU’s comeback.
It was the reverse on Monday. SDSU was down 41-20 with 16:20 left following a pair of Keshad Johnson free throws. The problem for their title hopes was they led in foul attempts at that point 11-4. Over the next 4:05, the referees evened the tally. UCONN was awarded nine straight attempts before the Aztecs got their next pair.
This reality and UCONN’s excellence at the line prevented SDSU from making a run. It was not until the free throw discrepancy was corrected that the Aztecs tightened the score..
“I think (UCONN) had eight baskets in the second half, but we put them on the line too much,” head coach Brian Dutcher said postgame. “That’s a credit to them. They’re aggressive. They attack the basket. It’s a hard game to officiate. These are three of the best officials there are, or they wouldn’t be at this game. Obviously, there’s always a call or two that I was hoping would go the other way, but that’s basketball.”
Pointing this out is not to suggest that SDSU got the short end of the stick on Monday. It is simply to highlight an important aspect often ignored but is one of the most essential components to nearly every game in the tournament.
The only game SDSU played in where the free throw discrepancy was tiled in one team’s favor was against Creighton. The Bluejays held an 11-4 edge as Darrion Trammell raced into the lane for a floater with a few seconds left. If the foul attempts had been closer, there is no way the ref would have called it. That they had given Creighton seven more attempts at that juncture was the reason the final two were given. The refs were evening out the contest.
- Aguek Arop smiled when told fans see him as a coach down the road. While reiterating that he needs a break from basketball, he said turning down coaching was “not a hard no.”
- Lamont Butler was sensational in this tournament. He likely made his way onto NBA radars, and it would be surprising if he did not test the professional ranks this offseason.
- SDSU’s fans travel exceptionally well. The makeup of the crowd was decidedly in the Aztec favor. One component conferences care about it fanbases that travel. Aztec Nation coming out to Houston is another positive on the school’s realignment resume.
- Matt Bradley’s legacy as an Aztec is secure. Postgame, he said he nearly quit basketball after transferring from CAL. He praised Dutcher for leading him back to the game. His 21-point performance allowed Butler to make his buzzer-beater.
Locker Room Quotes
Aguek Arop: It hurts really bad that we didn’t win it. I’m doing my best not to focus on that, but looking back and cherishing all the memories that I’ve made, all the relationships that I’ve built up. … kids dream of (making it to the Final Four) where I’m from. Being able to represent them, South Sudan, South Omaha, the city of San Diego, it’s special, and I’m grateful for that.”
Elijah Saunders: The big thing (he learned) is watching these guys put in work, the reps they put in. We didn’t get here by mistake. I felt like we worked harder than any team. Just learning from those guys how they work and how they prepare for the games. It was a big part of what I took in this season.
Lamont Butler: It’s dope to have that honor (all-tournament team). I put a lot of work in to help the team be in this position. It’s also a credit to my teammates for trusting me and my coaches as well, just trusting me to be able to make big-time plays for the team.
Brian Dutcher: We have a great fan base. They’re passionate. We’re in the ninth largest city in the country, and the whole city got behind us, not just San Diego State people, the city of San Diego. Anyone who was here will always remember Lamont’s shot that sent us to the finals. They’ll remember this atmosphere and how hard this team competed. We’re not only providing lifetime memories for ourselves, we’re providing it for all the people that embraced our team and were there for us.”
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.