The last time San Diego State met a double-digit seed with a Sweet 16 berth on the line, Florida Gulf Coast became a national darling at the Aztecs' expense.
Xavier Thames made sure the same thing would not happen twice.
The Mountain West player of the year delivered perhaps the best individual performance of the NCAA tournament so far, scoring 30 points and dishing out six assists to carry San Diego State to a 63-44 round of 32 rout of 12th-seeded North Dakota State.
It's hyperbole to say that Thames single-handedly thwarted the upset bid of the Bison, but he came about as close as one player can. Between his jump shots, deft passes and forays to the rim via the pick and roll, he was responsibile for 45 of San Diego State's first 55 points, one more than North Dakota State tallied the entire game.
Thames' memorable afternoon sends San Diego State to the Sweet 16 for the second time in four years, a remarkable feat for a program that had never won an NCAA tournament game prior to 2011. The Aztecs will face either Gonzaga or Arizona at the same venue at which they played in the 2011 Sweet 16, the Honda Center in Anaheim, which is about a 90-minute drive from their campus.
Reaching the NCAA tournament's second week had to be especially fulfilling for Thames and his teammates because few believed San Diego State would achieve such success this season. This was supposed to be a transition year for the Aztecs with standouts Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley moving on last spring, no double-digit scorers returning and a top-10 recruiting class not set to arrive until next summer.
Stifling defense, offensive rebounding and a dangerous transition attack have contributed to San Diego State's success, but the biggest reason the Aztecs have exceeded expectations is that Thames has been a one-man answer in half-court sets on offense.
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Whereas lingering back issues hampered Thames throughout his junior season, the former Washington State transfer spent the offseason strengthening his core and improving his conditioning to ensure he'd be fully healthy as a senior. He averaged 17 points per game in the regular season and has scored 23 and 30 in two NCAA tournament victories, carving up both New Mexico State and North Dakota State via the pick and roll.
From mid-range jump shots, to acrobatic layups at the rim, to four 3-pointers, Thames helped San Diego State built a seven-point lead at halftime and extend it over the course of the second half. It also helped that the Aztecs' length and athleticism posed new challenges for North Dakota State's typically efficient offense, holding stars Taylor Braun and Marshall Bjorkland to a combined 15 points and 5-of-21 shooting.
Not nearly enough other Bison were able to pick up the slack, which is why they'll be headed home two days after upsetting Oklahoma in the round of 64.
San Diego State is headed home too, but the Aztecs still have games to play. Next week in Anaheim, in the same gym where San Diego State won the Wooden Legacy tournament earlier this season, the Aztecs will take aim at either Arizona or Gonzaga and try to reach the program's first-ever Elite Eight.
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