SPOKANE, Wash. — San Diego State led New Mexico State by eight points with 1:20 left on Thursday night and frittered it all away.
The Aztecs, luckily, rallied in overtime to avoid one of the worst collapses in recent NCAA tournament history.
If was for that reason alone San Diego State fans couldn’t celebrate early Saturday against North Dakota State, even after star guard’s Xavier Thames’ layup put the Aztecs up by 10 at the four-minute mark.
This time, though, the lead was safe and San Diego State finished with a flourish in a 63-44 win at the Spokane Arena.
“I reminded the guys before the second half started we can’t come out flat again like we did against New Mexico State,” Thames said.
Thames, who had a key turnover Thursday that led to New Mexico State tying the game in regulation, was brilliant Saturday, finishing with a game-high 30 points.
The win advanced San Diego State (31-4) to this week’s West Regional in Anaheim, where the Aztecs will face Sunday’s Arizona-Gonzaga winner in San Diego.
It will be a familiar travel route for Steve Fisher’s team, which got to the Round of 16 in Anaheim in 2011 before losing in the semifinals to eventual national champion Connecticut.
“We were good enough that year to win the national championship,” Fisher said.
This year’s team had to fight to earn a No. 4 seeding and has been a pleasant surprise in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. The Aztecs were picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West Conference.
“This year nobody thought we would be what we are, so it was almost like a hall pass,” Fisher said.
Led by Thames, a senior transfer from Washington State, the Aztecs have overachieved all the way to the Sweet 16.
This team doesn’t have a Kawhi Leonard, the star of the 2011 run, but it has a pretty good catalyst in Thames.
He missed his career high Saturday by a point and once again was the orchestrator for the Aztecs’ suffocating defense.
North Dakota State entered the tournament leading the nation in field goal percentage at 51%
The long, lanky Aztecs though, shrank the basket and made it look like opposing Bison were shooting into a thimble.
San Diego State held the Bison to 31.9% shooting for the game (15 of 47).
“Make them go over you to shoot balls,” Fisher told his team.
The Aztecs silenced Bison star Taylor Braun, the Summit League player of the year, who made only two of 14 shots.
Junior Dwayne Polee II, the Aztecs’ skinny 6-7 junior forward, spent a lot of his defensive time frustrating Braun.
“We really wanted to make an emphasis to cut his water off,” Polee said.
By game’s end, Braun, a senior, was tapped out.
“You don’t want to go out like this,” Braun said. “I’m two for 14 in my last college game? I don’t know what to say, I just couldn’t ... I don’t know.”
Lawrence Alexander, the hero of the Bison’s overtime win over Oklahoma, missed eight of his nine shots against San Diego State.
North Dakota State finished the year at 26-7.