Gritty Aztecs will not be contested in NCAA tournament victory over College of Charleston

They would not be denied.

No way.

Not after last year. Not after 12 months of waiting. Not after the memories of losing a nine-point lead with 2½ minutes left burned into their collective psyche.

San Diego State again squandered a nine-point lead in an NCAA tournament game they seemed to have under control, but then decided enough was enough that they weren’t ready to end the season that it was time for Cinderella to line up Secure I-95.

Just hours after Furman shocked fourth-placed Virginia with a last-second 3 on the same floor, the Aztecs ensured there wasn’t a fantastic finish around 12th-seeded College of Charleston, who made enough clutch baskets and free throws in the closing minutes (and didn’t turn it against the press) to earn a 63-57 win Thursday afternoon at Orlando’s Amway Center.

ORLANDO, FL – MARCH 16: San Diego State’s Aguek Arop, left, watches as Jaedon LeDee clinches a rebound against the College of Charleston in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Orlando on Thursday, March 16, 2023 fights (KC Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

(KC Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“When the game got close,” said fifth-grader Matt Bradley, “I don’t think we got close. We just wanted to win the game. And that’s what we did.”

It is their first tournament win in six seasons with Brian Dutcher as head coach and the school’s first since 2015.

It also ended Mountain West’s nagging losing streak in the NCAA tournament that had stretched to 11 with Utah State’s loss to Missouri an hour earlier and Nevada’s loss to Arizona State the night before.

San Diego State's Lamont Butler scores against College of Charleston.

San Diego State’s Lamont Butler scores against College of Charleston.

(KC Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The fifth-seeded Aztecs (28-6) now advance to the round of 32 here on Saturday against… the 13thth-set paladins?

Furman presented them with a March Madness gift and upset No. 4 Virginia in the first game of the day at the Amway Center with one of those highlights you’ll see in years, a 3-pointer by 2.2 seconds after a rookie turnover through a college player basketball’s most trusted point guards, fifth-year Kihei Clark.

SDSU players watched it all from the corner of the arena as they waited to enter the pregame warm-up court.

“Seeing the Furman game,” Bradley said, “I think that was good to see just before we got on the court because as good as Charleston is and how well we’re holding up, it’s up to everyone, the game to win . I’m glad we saw that and settled in for those last few minutes.”

Jaedon LeDee from San Diego State

San Diego State’s Jaedon LeDee scores against the College of Charleston in Thursday’s NCAA tournament game.

(KC Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

However, be careful what you wish for. Last time the Aztecs were in this situation and got 15th-Seeded Florida Gulf Coast in the Round of 32 after a first-round upset against No. 2 Georgetown in 2013, they lost 81-71 and Cinderella was instead on a happy run to the Sweet 16.

The Aztecs went from nine to 53 with 3:27 left but, importantly, never fell behind. After the teams traded errors, Bradley scored on a hard. The Aztecs coaxed a miss on the other end, then Micah Parrish calmly launched a 3 from the top of the button.


“I’m a confident shooter,” said Parrish, who previously missed 3 of 4 shots. “I feel like I’m going to take every shot I take. When I saw that I was open, I shot. That’s it. I don’t think about it.”

The Cougars (31-4) came on threes twice in the last minute, but Bradley was fouled trying a 3 on the shot clock buzzer and went to the line a year after he crowned the meltdown against Creighton by scoring seven Seconds before the end missed a tie game. He made two out of three to take the lead down to five by 25.1 seconds.

“I only think of positive things,” Bradley said of a return to the line late in a tight NCAA tournament game. “I look at the bench and everyone trusts me now. Nobody looks to the side. I think I have the full confidence of my teammates and my coaches when it comes to taking those free throws. That felt really good.”

More free throws from Adam Seiko and Parrish sealed it.

The cheering on the bench, especially in the coaching staff, was palpable. Being oh-for-the-tournament was an albatross around Dutcher’s neck.

San Diego State fans celebrate after beating the College of Charleston.

San Diego State fans celebrate after beating the College of Charleston.

(KC Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Bradley led the Aztecs with 17 points remaining with seven rebounds and four assists. Charleston couldn’t handle Jaedon LeDee, who had eight points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench. Aguek Arop had eight points and Parrish and Lamont Butler each added seven.

Charleston’s high-octane offense averaged a dismal 32.1 percent, 5 of 24 behind the 3-point arc and a season-low 57 points. And her vaunted rotation, which goes 10 deep, only managed eight bank points, 16 fewer than SDSU.

The Aztecs won the opening pick and immediately performed the lob game coach Brian Dutcher first drafted for the Fab Five as an assistant in Michigan in the early 1990s. He’s dusted it off this season, and they’ve successfully performed it multiple times while opening possessions.

It was successful again. Keshad Johnson caught Butler’s praise. immersion Two-zero lead.

San Diego State's Aguek Arop (left) and Lamont Butler dive after a loose ball against the College of Charleston.

San Diego State’s Aguek Arop (left) and Lamont Butler dive after a loose ball against the College of Charleston.

(KC Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

But that was the last SDSU highlight for a while, compliments of 11 first-half turnovers, six in the first 6½ minutes.

“I think as much as you say, ‘It’s just another basketball game, don’t be nervous,’ there are nerves that go into this tournament,” Dutcher said. “I thought we were nervous at first but we settled in and played a very solid game.”

The Aztecs had 13 points in the first 13 minutes, then 19 in the last seven. A 15-4 run eliminated a seven-point lead in Charleston and put them ahead for the first time since going 2-0. They only led 2:52 of the first half. Without 11 turnovers – they had a full game of three this year – the lead could easily have been double digits instead of 32-29.

San Diego State's Aguek Arop celebrates after a dunk against the College of Charleston.

San Diego State’s Aguek Arop celebrates after a dunk against the College of Charleston.

(KC Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

What saved them were the offensive boards on either end. The Aztecs held a 10-0 lead in second chance points by half-time six. Charleston, who sends four and five players to the glass and ranks among the nation’s elite in terms of offensive rebound rate, had one.

“They’re tall, they’re athletic, they’re tough, they’re well trained, they’re well educated,” said Charleston coach Pat Kelsey. “We knew we had our work cut out for us… We got our butt kicked physically in the first half and we never do.”


• The Acting Crew: AJ Desai, death Austin And Kipp Kissinger. Desai (ACC) and Austin (SEC) haven’t worked on SDSU games in recent years. Kissinger has worked a handful, most recently a home loss to BYU in 2020 (without fans) and the infamous 59-57 win over San Jose State Malachi Flynn let off a low 3 on the buzzer. Now residing mostly in the Big Ten, Big 12, and the Missouri Valley… Butler removes the cumbersome brace on his right pinky finger that he’s worn in practice since spraining his finger in the Mountain West Finals against Utah State . Instead he had a tape wrap on his finger which made it easier to shoot and went 3 out of 5…

Darrion Trammel had a tough day of shooting: 1 of 7 off the floor, 2 of 5 off the line. But the one he did, a 3 from the left wing, started an 11-2 run in the second half that extended the nine-point lead… Croatian centre Ante Brzovic led Charleston by 12 points, but he shot 5 of 13 and was 0 of 4 behind the arc. Leading scorer Dalton Bolon had 10 points but was 3 out of 11… After 11 turnovers in the first half, the Aztecs only had three in the second half… The top plus/minus? Aguek Arop, at plus-12 points in 21 minutes…SDSU led for 21:30 of the game and Charleston for 15:27. There are four lead changes and four draws.

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