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San Diego State sets sights on program's first NCAA tourney win

Ryan Greene
The Dagger

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LAS VEGAS — What's tougher than being a 15-seed in the NCAA tournament?

Well, other than maybe being a 16-seed, it's being the poor 15-seed that draws likely No. 2 seed San Diego State in next week's first round.

BYU found out on Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas what a season's worth of pent-up frustration can lead the Aztecs to do, as SDSU thumped the Cougars in the Mountain West Conference tournament title game, 72-54, avenging their only two regular season setbacks.

Now imagine what a few decades of built-up postseason angst will feel like for an opponent.

Yes, a program that is on the verge of claiming one of the top eight seeds in the field of 68, has never won a game in the NCAA tournament. The Aztecs are 0-6 all-time in the dance, and no matter who the first win comes against, it'll feel just as good to SDSU as the 18-point smacking of the rival Cougars did on Saturday.

"Getting that first one will be something special," said senior point guard D.J. Gay, who added that the current team takes pride in rectifying the program's traditional postseason futility. "We're not looking ahead. We've never won in (the tournament) before, and to get that one win under our belt would be another stepping stone for us."

If San Diego State plays the way it did against BYU, it won't be stopping with just one NCAA tourney win.

The Aztecs wore down the Cougars and held them to a season-low 54 points by focusing on their strengths — defense and front-court dominance.

Las Vegas native Billy White, playing for the final time in his hometown, was told by SDSU coach Steve Fisher that he would be drawing the starting assignment on BYU star Jimmer Fredette, who 24 hours earlier scored a career-high 52 points against New Mexico in the semis.

The 6-foot-8 White used his length and quickness to keep Fredette from both getting open looks on the perimeter or creating for others. The nation's leading scorer had 16 points at the break, but it was as forgettable of a 16-point half as you'll see

"You really can't stop him — He's a machine," White said. "He's going to get his shots off no matter what, and he's going to make tough shots."

White had played poorly in each of the two regular season meetings with BYU, letting the pressure of the scenarios throw him off a tad in terms of his emotions. That was the difference this time around.

With the exception of one slip — a biceps-flexing display towards the Cougars bench following a bucket in the game's early minutes that could have drawn a technical foul with the wrong official present — the enigmatic White stayed level-headed enough to post 21 points, 12 rebounds and five steals in 31 minutes.

Also, with White leading the way, Fredette had maybe the most pedestrian 30-point effort of his break-through season, going 10-of-25 fro the floor, 2-of-7 from deep and turning the ball over four times.

It was the most significant performance of his solid four-year Aztec career.

"It was hard — I'm an emotional player," White said. "I like to celebrate and stuff like that. I had to stay focused.

"I knew I had to have a big game. I had to either score or just defend, and I did both tonight."

His outstanding performance anchored a stellar collective effort from a front-court trio that is likely to have an advantage against any team it runs across later this month.

White, senior Malcolm Thomas and NBA-bound star sophomore Kawhi Leonard combined to score 50 points and take down 27 rebounds. They hounded an overwhelmed, thin BYU front line that has been limited and inconsistent since losing sophomore Brandon Davies to a season-ending suspension last week. The Aztecs out-scored the Cougars in the paint by a landslide: 40-16.

To complement the interior dominance, senior point guard D.J. Gay didn't commit a single turnover in 34 minutes played, while they hit just enough timely outside jumpers to keep the Cougars honest.

On top of everything, the Aztecs also played with an edge that they've displayed several times this season while racking up a school-record 32 wins, coming out of the tunnel to start the game with visible anger on their faces.

"Absolutely — How could we not be mad when our only two losses were to one team?" Gay said. "To us, that was unacceptable."

The key now for the Aztecs is harnessing that beautiful package that was on display Saturday afternoon for just a little while longer.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for the Las Vegas Sun. Read his Rebels coverage and follow him on Twitter.

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