Once Sting Wears Off, Memories of Great Season Will Remain
March 28, 2014
ANAHEIM, Calif. - The roar began just as the crestfallen Aztecs players started to make their way to the tunnel after the final buzzer Thursday night.
It was an ovation distinct from the din of Wildcats fans celebrating top-seeded Arizona's advancement to the Elite 8 after their hard-fought 70-64 win. It was a message of appreciation from the thousands of red-and-black-clad fans that had spent the past two-plus hours turning the Honda Center into Viejas Arena north.
And it was richly deserved.
"Anybody that watched the game live, on TV, or listened to the radio had to see a team with character, with pride, with toughness --- and one that could play," said head coach Steve Fisher, who finished his 15th season at San Diego State with a 31-5 record and another Sweet 16 banner on order. "They put themselves in a position to win, but couldn't quite get it done. That is the hard part."
Hard is right.
Make no mistake: The accursed term "moral victory" has long been purged from the San Diego State lexicon. This will be a loss that will take some time to digest. While there is no shame in a close loss to one of the west's marquee programs, there is no satisfaction either. Not for a program that continues to set its sights higher. Not for a program that just came agonizingly close to taking its desired next step: joining the nation's elite.
The Aztecs started strong and took a 32-28 lead into halftime after one of their most impressive 20 minutes of basketball of the season. They dominated the boards, thanks to the nasty play of senior forward Josh Davis, while locking down Wildcats top-scorer Nick Johnson, who didn't make a shot until 2:24 was left in the game. They also produced the highest decibel reading from the decidedly pro-Aztecs gathering after a Dwayne Polee II steal and breakaway dunk made the crowd of 17,773 sound distinctly like 12,414.
SDSU stretched the lead to as many as eight in the second half before ultimately succumbing to the Achilles' heel that dogged the team all year - its propensity for stretches of cold shooting. And this one came at a particularly inopportune time. Facing one of the nation's top statistical defenses, the Aztecs went without a field goal for more than seven minutes, finally snapping the drought with a Polee 3-pointer with 1:17 to play.
By then it was too late. The Wildcats had turned a 49-46 deficit into a 61-53 lead.
"We just didn't make enough plays down the stretch," sophomore guard Winston Shepard said.
The finality of it all is particularly cruel for seniors Xavier Thames and Davis, who ended their collegiate careers in fitting fashion in all respects but the final score. Thames, the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, scored game-high 25 points while Davis pulled down 14 boards.
"I told X and Josh that I feel especially bad for them," Fisher said. "Because one day we will make a Final Four. And when we do, the two of them will be there with us because that's what our program exemplifies."
Of course, lost in the disappointment of the moment is the fact that the Aztecs weren't supposed to be here at all. Not this year. Conventional wisdom saw this as a season of lowered expectations, sandwiched between the losses of talented scorers Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley and the arrival next season's stellar class of newcomers. A bridge year many called it.
But if this was a bridge, it was the Golden Gate. The season included the program's second-highest win total in history (31), biggest signature victory (at Kansas), and most memorable and consequential comeback (vs. New Mexico for the conference title). It also saw the Aztecs notch their fourth and fifth NCAA Tournament wins ever -- all of which have been accumulated in the past 36 months.
"I do think now there's a perception nationally that, `Hey, they're good - they're supposed to be good,'" Fisher said. "I like that. Our players like that. I think a good pressure of expectations is now on our program."
That reality might seem like cold comfort in the aftermath of bitter defeat. But in time, the memories of what this team accomplished will be the ones that are truly lasting.
Judging from the postgame ovation, it's clear SDSU fans recognize that already.