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Tucson subregional: San Diego State survives, ready to be taken seriously

SDSU's Billy White (left) and Malcolm Thomas with a happy moment after beating Temple in double overtime.
Photo by Jennifer Stewart-US PRESSWIRE

When it was finally over, when San Diego State had finally shaken dogged Temple in double overtime, the Aztecs fans chanted, “We want Kemba! We want Kemba!”

Well, they got him.

San Diego State will get third-seeded UConn — the Big East conference tournament champion — and star guard Kemba Walker next week in the Sweet 16 in Anaheim.

How’s that for a big stage?

“We’re excited to play a Big East team,” guard James Rahon said after the 71-64 victory in McKale Center.

“We’re excited to keep showing the country what we can do here. … I think this is a big statement. Maybe people around the country weren’t taking us as seriously.”

The Aztecs almost never made it to their prove-it moment. They led by seven with 7:16 left. They led by five with 2:11 to go. Temple growled, sunk its teeth into the game and wouldn’t let go.

The Owls denied San Diego State the win on the last possession of regulation. They did it again on the last possession of overtime.

But the Aztecs can grind. The frontline of Kawhi Leonard, Billy White and Malcolm Thomas is physical and athletic. They combined to score all 17 of San Diego State’s points in the overtime periods.

“Huge,” Rahon said of the trio of forwards.

They combined for 45 shots and 31 rebounds, and that was with Leonard out of sync for most of the game, turning in a subpar performance. But White grabbed 13 rebounds. Thomas had a huge block right in front of the rim with the Aztecs protecting a three-point lead in the final minute of the second overtime.

“To continue on in this event, you have to be good. We’re good. We know we’re good,” coach Steve Fisher said. “But you also have to have a bit of good fortune. And I said to them after the game, we probably had a little bit of that tonight.”

Out here in the West, we know all about San Diego State. The Aztecs beat up on Arizona pretty good last season, remember?

This year, they are 34-2, having beaten every team that doesn’t have a Jimmer on its roster. But the Aztecs, until now, still might be college basketball’s little secret. They didn’t play one of those coast-to-coast schedules. They won at Cal but didn’t play another major-conference team. No Big Ten or Big 12 or ACC.

Now, the Big East. Maybe Duke in the West Region final. Shoot, maybe Arizona or Texas, for that matter.

“Like a dream come true,” point guard D.J. Gay said of being in the Sweet 16.

“I mean, this is something that we talked about in the summertime and preseason and even during the season. To finally achieve this goal, it feels special. Not just for this team, but, you know, for the city of San Diego. This is a place that we haven’t been before. But to finally reach it, feels amazing.”

You know what’s amazing? San Diego State hadn’t won a bowl game since 1969 until December. It had never won a Division I NCAA Tournament game. Now, it has two such basketball victories. Exciting times to be an Aztec.

Maybe San Diego State didn’t make many converts by scratching to beat Temple after scoring a scant 18 second-half points. But the Aztecs are impressively constructed: Brawn, experience, speed when they need it, athletic at most spots … and they have guys who can shoot it from long range.

“We’ve got a good team. We find different ways to win,” Fisher said.

“And collectively we’ve won 34 games. So we feel we belong.”

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