SPOKANE, Wash. — And to think, we’ve only just begun.
“March Madness” morphed into “The Longest Day” on Thursday, after San Diego State and New Mexico State went to overtime, marking the record fourth game of the day to extend the extra 5 minutes.
The fourth-seeded Aztecs pulled out a 73-69 victory after letting a 14-point lead slip away in regulation.
“We didn’t want to get into overtime, but we were pleased once we got there that we found a way to get a win,” coach Steve Fisher said.
Xavier Thames scored the first basket of overtime and made three of four free throws at the end of the extra session to help San Diego State (30-4) advance to Saturday’s third-round West Region game against North Dakota State. Earlier in the day, the Bison beat Oklahoma 80-75 — in overtime, of course.
Thames had 23 points for the Aztecs, who didn’t trail once all night but still needed 45 minutes to get the job done.
“All that matters is we got the win,” Thames said.
Holding a five-point lead with 32 seconds left, the Aztecs let Renaldo Dixon score to make it 60-57 with 16.9 remaining.
An inbounds pass and a few free throws were all they needed to wrap things up.
Not quite that easy, especially not on this day.
Thames mishandled the inbounds pass and, after a timeout, the 13th-seeded Aggies (26-10) worked the ball to Kevin Aronis, who missed his first try, but got it back after an offensive rebound and made the 3-pointer to tie it. Thames had a chance to win but his shot rimmed out, and off to overtime they went.
“It’s the tournament, so everybody is going to bring their best punch,” San Diego State’s Dwayne Polee said. “They punched us in the mouth in the second half but we took it to OT and fought even harder.”
The Aztecs joined North Dakota State, UConn and St. Louis as overtime winners on the first full day of the tournament. The last time there had been as many as three overtimes in one day was March 20, 2010. If there’s a single overtime in any of Friday’s 16 games, the record for the most OT games in the round of 64 will be broken.
This one didn’t appear headed that way.
San Diego State built a 14-point lead early in the second half, in large part because New Mexico State’s big man, 7-foot-5, 355-pound Sim Bhullar, spent most of the first half on the bench. With Bhullar back in the game, the Aggies’ offense started clicking again. He and Daniel Mullings connected repeatedly in chipping the deficit to 44-42 after a 22-10 run.
“It was everything I expected,” Aztecs forward Skylar Spencer said of the challenge of covering Bhullar. “But you don’t really get a taste of it unless you play against him.”
Thames made three straight baskets for the Aztecs to build the lead back to six. It looked as though they would grind the game away from there.
Instead, they had to work overtime, and San Diego State started pulling away when Bhullar fouled out with 3:21 left in the extra session. The big fella finished with 14 points and seven rebounds, and Mullings had 18 for the Aggies.
“It’s depressing is what it is,” New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said. “To be able to fight that hard the second half and not get over the hump in overtime. I thought we drew up some really good stuff and we just missed some right at the basket.”
While San Diego State may not have the height — 6-8 Josh Davis looked like a little kid trying to guard Bhullar when he posted up — the Aztecs do have some reach. They blocked nine shots — seven more than Bhullar — and had eight steals. Led by 14 boards from Davis, San Diego State finished with 40 rebounds, only one fewer than the Aggies.
Yet one more category in which the teams were nearly even.
“The fight’s never over ‘til the clock hits zero,” Bhullar said. “So we just came out in the second half and played our hearts out and took it into overtime.”
A fitting way to end the day.