Ugly but beautiful for Aztecs

TUCSON, Ariz. – The ugliness lasted 50 minutes. It pervaded regulation, continued into overtime and persisted through the second overtime. If the NCAA tournament is a showcase for excellence in college basketball, Saturday’s West Regional matchup between San Diego State and Temple was a reminder that not every game is Butler-Pitt.

Kawhi Leonard and the Aztecs needed everything they had to get past Temple.
(Harry How/Getty Images)

The tournament, likewise, is not a beauty contest. So San Diego State didn’t care to spend much time dissecting its 71-64 victory at McKale Center, just as it’s unfair to expect people to reflect upon the biggest pimple of their lives. And make no mistake: This was a pus-filled monster that, upon popping, left the Aztecs relieved and drained.

As the buzzer sounded, the floor looked like a crime scene. Chase Tapley was motionless. Only the chalk outline was missing. He had played 39 minutes. Kawhi Leonard (46 minutes) shook hands and went to the bench to sit and rehydrate. D.J. Gay (50 minutes) swallowed oxygen like he needed a third lung. And Malcolm Thomas (45 minutes) pushed his arms in the air. Raising the roof is so 2006, yeah, but forgive Thomas. The Aztecs had never won one NCAA tournament game, let alone advanced to the Sweet 16, and after his performance in double OT, he was entitled to the running man, the cabbage patch or the macarena if he so chose.

With 44 seconds left and Temple’s legs zombie dead – the Owls had hit front iron on three shots already in the period – Thomas rose to forcefully reject a Lavoy Allen shot and preserve the Aztecs’ three-point advantage. Leonard made two free throws, then followed with a steal and dunk that finished off a seventh-seeded Temple team that second-seeded San Diego State should’ve finished off much earlier.

“We’re good. We know we’re good,” San Diego State 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.”

Fortune helped, sure, but plenty of forecasting took place. Coaches know there will be games like this, and so last summer, during the hottest days San Diego offered, the Aztecs took to an unfamiliar place.

The football field.

Part of the conditioning plan from new strength coach Randy Shelton involved working out the hoops team in football cleats. They ran. They passed medicine balls. They did drills outside of the comfort zone of their gym. And as they pushed themselves more than they had to in any of their 36 games this season, the Aztecs reflected on those days – those make-you-want-to-puke workouts – with fondness.

“It builds stamina, but it also builds toughness,” San Diego State center Brian Carlwell said. “It’s hot outside. The sun is blazing. And we’re tested. Push, push. It builds character, and I think that’s definitely a big part of who we were this season and who we were today.”

Temple’s summer sessions were, in all likelihood, just as brutal. Their bodies simply couldn’t hold up like San Diego State’s. Allen and Rahlir Jefferson played 50 minutes, Ramone Moore 49, Khalif Wyatt 41 and Juan Fernandez 38, and though Allen claimed afterward he could’ve played another two overtimes, even those on the Owls’ bench noticed the exhaustion.

“You just hope and trust in these guys that they’re just going to dig down deeper, and however tired they are, they’re going to find some inner strength and some adrenaline they can call on,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “And I think it just comes down to really mentally saying to yourself that I can’t make this play or I’ve got to make that play and I’ve got to trust in my teammates. Obviously, the last couple minutes, we did a couple things that we can’t do.”

Temple had spent the previous 45 doing just enough. San Diego State cruised to a 10-point advantage midway through the first half and led 36-31 at halftime. But the Aztecs managed just 18 second-half points, and a heave from Tapley went long and sent the game into overtime.

The Owls built a four-point lead there, only to fritter it away and give the Aztecs the last shot again. They missed again, too, and after an overtime of silly turnovers and bad shots and poor execution and ill-conceived sets, it was on to overtime No. 2.

Leonard finally showed up there. Huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf, he persevered to hit all four of his free throws and make up for his 5-of-14 shooting and three traveling calls.

Tim Shelton had to help exhausted Chase Tapley off the floor after the game ended.
(Harry How/Getty Images)

“I was a little tired,” Leonard said. “But you just have to focus up. That fatigue has to go away. I knew I had five more minutes to help my team win. We all knew that, too. We came out hungry.”

Literally so, too. After the game, Leonard sat in his seat in the locker room and wolfed down two bags of Ruffles chips. His teammates watched other NCAA tournament games through the message flashing on the television screen: “Needs to change to 331 MTVHD to record ‘Jersey Shore.’ ” They found the remote and denied the request. They had endured enough of a situation already.

While the rest of the Aztecs lazed around before their trip back to San Diego, Thomas strutted as if he’d barely gone for a jog. His teammates said he was in better condition than anyone else and it showed. Because Temple’s halfcourt offense never could find rhythm, the Owls turned to a pick-and-roll set that forced Thomas to flash out on the ball, then recover into the paint. After shuffling his feet through hundreds of screens, Thomas still found the legs to send back Allen’s shot as time waned.

“It was,” teammate Billy White said, “an amazing block.”

And ugly as it was for both sides, it turned out to be an amazing game for the Aztecs. They have nearly a week to rest. In the Sweet 16, they’re playing a virtual home game in Anaheim, Calif., in an arena where Leonard won two state championships as a prep star. Their crew of fans that traveled so well forgot quickly about the mess they’d just seen and focused on where San Diego State was going.

Sweet Six-teen!” they bellowed. “Sweet Six-teen!”

With that chant, the ugliness washed away. The Aztecs cared not about aesthetics, just the final score. It was in their favor. Turns out the miracle fruit isn’t the only thing that can turn something sour into something so sweet.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Mar 20, 2011