The final nail was pounded into the coffin as most assumed it would be all season. Thirty-six games later, San Diego State couldn’t overcome its offensive woes against an elite opponent.
And for it, the Aztecs paid dearly on college basketball’s grandest stage.
For it, they are done.
You can’t fault effort or toughness or a will to win that for 30 or so minutes Thursday night made most believe San Diego State would take out top-seeded Arizona in a Sweet 16 game of the NCAA Tournament at the Honda Center.
But the Wildcats prevailed 70-64 in the West Regional because they were good enough over the final eight minutes to make significant shots, and the Aztecs went seven of them without a basket.
You can go that long without a field goal against most teams and still win when you defend like San Diego State, which is to say incredibly well.
You can beat most Mountain West sides merely by limiting shots as the Aztecs do, no matter how much time passes between baskets.
But you can’t offer that sort of drought against a team with pros, a team that was ranked No. 1 nationally for much of the season, a team that is your equal defensively and has the sort of athletes who make plays so few can at this level.
“We’ve played 37 games,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, whose team will meet Wisconsin in the regional final on Saturday with a Final Four spot at stake. “That was the most physical, hard-fought game we have played. San Diego State set the tone right away for how the game would be played. Their physicality, their athleticism, their toughness … They have a tremendous team. They have a great program.”
Said Arizona guard Nick Johnson: “We played those guys before. We knew who were playing. They play really, really hard.”
San Diego State took a 49-46 lead on a layup by JJ O’Brien with 8:18 remaining.
Its next basket was a 3-pointer from Dwayne Polee II … with 1:17 left.
Arizona still led 61-56.
It’s this sort of offensive ineptness that was going to make it extremely difficult for San Diego State to advance out of the West. The Aztecs played about as well the first 18 minutes as they could have hoped, pounding the Wildcats on the boards and departing for halftime with a 32-28 lead.
They extended the lead to eight nearly four minutes into the second half and still led by four with 9:57 left.
The layup from O’Brien came a short time later.
Then the Aztecs missed their next six shots, four of them 3-point attempts. They didn’t attack an Arizona frontcourt riddled with foul trouble nearly enough. They stopped being the aggressor at the worst time.
They paid for it with their season.
“There are no moral victories in this program,” Aztecs sophomore guard Winston Shepard said. “We didn’t put a notch in the win column, so nothing matters. Look in our locker room. No one is happy. We played hard. We always play hard. But we are not about moral victories.”
That, as much as anything, defines where San Diego State resides today, which is to say a nationally recognized program with as tough and as savvy and as confident a group of players as you will find.
The Aztecs have carried the Mountain West in March on their shoulders of late. Since 2011, San Diego State has five NCAA wins. No other program has more than one. UNLV has zero.
San Diego State likely will be favored to win the conference and begin next season inside the Top 25, when a nationally ranked recruiting class arrives and transfers such as former Arizona forward Angelo Chol become eligible.
Xavier Thames (game-high 25 points Thursday on 9-of-22 shooting) will be ridiculously difficult to replace at point guard, but one thing San Diego State has done better than any Mountain West side under head coach Steve Fisher is to improve its players from one season to the next, allowing those who play linited roles now to emerge as stars the following season.
It happened with Kawhi Leonard and Jamaal Franklin and Thames.
Polee could be next.
“We’ve been to the NCAA Tournament five straight years,” Fisher said. “We’ve only been to the Sweet 16 twice, and we want more. The perception about us now nationally is, ‘Hey, they’re good. They’re supposed to be good.’ I like that. Our players like that. We have a good pressure of expectations on our program now.
“One of these days, we’re going to get to a Final Four. But we were beaten here by a very good team, and we’re very disappointed.”
Seven minutes and one second without a basket.
Thirty-six games and 31 wins later, the final nail in the coffin.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.