San Diego State’s Elite Eight bid derailed as late miscue ignites Arizona’s Nick Johnson

Posted: 03/28/2014 in college basketball, Uncategorized
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San Diego State’s loss to Arizona in the Sweet 16 can be summed up this simply:

winston.shepard.ballhandlerJohnson was scoreless over the first 37-plus minutes of the game but the easy basket after Shepard’s ill-timed turnover turned his night around. The Pac-12 Player of the Year was 0-of-10 shooting prior to the gift basket and ended up scoring 15 points in the final 2:46 as Arizona pulled out a 70-64 victory.

The Wildcats move on to Saturday’s West regional final against Wisconsin while the Aztecs get to head back down Interstate 5 lamenting that an eight-point second-half lead slipped away. (see stellar game recap — http://sltrib.sportsdirectinc.com/basketball/ncaab-boxscores.aspx?page=/data/NCAAB/results/2013-2014/recap882324.html)

San Diego State finishes the campaign with a stellar 31-5 record – the second-best mark in school history – but the celebration over a strong season will begin sometime next week.

In the aftermath of a stinging defeat, players and coaches wonder what they could have done to change the outcome and pundits assess where the blame goes.

The Aztecs led for the first 12-plus minutes of the second half before Arizona took its first lead. The momentum had shifted to the Wildcats but San Diego State was just a 3-pointer away from tying the score before the ghost of Brandon Heath emerged.

Heath is the former guard who carelessly dribbled the ball off his own calf when the Aztecs had the lead in the final half-minute of the 2006 NCAA tournament against Indiana. The Hoosiers stole the game and San Diego State would wait another five years to win its first-ever NCAA tournament game.

Shepard’s miscue set the tone for what happened down the stretch. T.J. McConnell stole the ball and the play ended with Johnson’s first basket of the night. He then hit a 3-pointer with 1:50 to play and with his mind no longer clogged up about his poor shooting night, Johnson made 10 consecutive free throws over the final 90 seconds to thwart the Aztecs’ attempt at reaching the Elite Eight for the first time ever.

Obviously, the loss isn’t to be solely pinned on Shepard. San Diego State allowed Arizona to shoot 61.9 percent from the field in the second half and had just three assists all night while shooting 38.9 percent.

Then there is also this huge factor: The top-seeded Wildcats are, well, pretty good themselves.

Arizona is a program used to playing in the Sweet 16 and other big games and the Wildcats picked up their level of play in the latter part of the contest.

Aztecs coach Steve Fisher is trying to get San Diego State’s program to that level – and hard losses like Thursday’s contest is often part of the process.

“We’re newbies to this stage – we’ve only been to the Sweet 16 twice,” Fisher said in the postgame press conference. “And we want more.”

The Aztecs will take another shot next season and it will have to be done without the services of do-everything guard Xavier Thames and rebounding dynamo Josh Davis. But several key players will be back and a highly regarded recruiting class is also on its way.

So we will see next March whether lessons are learned. Remember, the team the Aztecs lost to in the 2011 Sweet 16 went on to win the NCAA tournament. If Arizona joins Connecticut in cutting down the nets, it makes the final game of the 2013-14 season just a little bit less painful when it is recalled years down the line.

Regardless, 30-win seasons sure beat all those 20-loss campaigns San Diego State was once known for.

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