March Madness: SDSU makes first Final Four ever after controversial last-second win over Creighton

March Madness: SDSU makes first Final Four ever after controversial last-second win over Creighton

Two teams who have never advanced this deep into March waged a desperate battle on Sunday to see who could seize the opportunity to make their first Final Four.

It was tense. It was close. And, in the end, it was controversial.

San Diego State’s 57-56 victory over Creighton turned on a late disputed call. With the score tied and only a few ticks left in regulation, San Diego State's Darrion Trammell drove around Creighton's Ryan Nembhard and rose to attempt a floater from the free-throw line. The shot clanged off the front rim, but referees assessed a foul on Nembhard for using his left arm to shove an airborne Trammell.

Trammell had two chances to win the game at the foul line. The 74% foul shooter missed the first but sank the second.

Was the foul call correct? Trammell insists, “I think I got fouled.”

Nembhard raised his arms in disbelief when the call was made but didn’t protest further when speaking to reporters.

“You work so hard all year, and it comes down to a play like that, I don't know,” Nembhard said. “I think we could have done a little bit more to make it a game that didn't have to go down to that, but it's a tough way to lose.”

The controversial finish detracted from a remarkable achievement from a San Diego State team that has shut down two of college basketball's top offenses over the past three days. Only two days after holding high-powered Alabama to 32% shooting and 3-for-27 from behind the arc, the Aztecs limited Creighton to seven made baskets in the second half.

Creighton only managed to even the score in the final minute because of a costly gaffe from the Aztecs on a sideline inbounds play. Adam Seiko tried to throw a lob pass to Micah Parrish posted up underneath the San Diego State basket, but Creighton's Baylor Scheierman intercepted it and laid the ball up to tie the game at 56.

"Luckily [Parrish] jumped and just whiffed totally," Scheierman said. "It just dropped right in my arms, and I was able to lay it in."

In some years, a No. 5 seed advancing deeper into March than it ever has before would be the Final Four’s charming underdog story. This year, San Diego State will almost certainly be the favorite in the national semifinals next Saturday. Awaiting the Aztecs is Florida Atlantic, the No. 9 seed from the East region, a program that until 11 days ago had never won an NCAA tournament game.

Before Steve Fisher became San Diego State’s head coach almost a quarter century ago, it would have been unfathomable to envision the Aztecs in a Final Four. Not only had they never won an NCAA tournament game in program history, they were also coming off a dismal stretch of 13 losing seasons in 14 years.

The day before home games during his debut season at San Diego State, Fisher would venture onto campus with his pockets stuffed full of free tickets. More often than not, he couldn’t give them all away. Students and alums in sun-drenched San Diego had better things to do than support a losing team.

Fisher gradually built San Diego State into one of the West’s finest programs by scrounging for overlooked in-state recruits and by opening his doors to power-conference transfers in need of a second chance. Kawhi Leonard, D.J. Gay and Malcolm Thomas elevated San Diego State into the national spotlight in 2011. Jamaal Franklin, Xavier Thames and Malachi Flynn ensured the Aztecs stayed relevant.

The common thread among San Diego State’s top teams has been an unwavering commitment to defense. That never faltered even after Fisher retired in 2017 and longtime assistant Brian Dutcher slid over a seat. San Diego State has advanced to all but three NCAA tournaments since 2010. Eight of the Aztecs’ NCAA tournament teams have featured a defense ranked 13th or better nationally.

“When we recruit kids to our program, we tell them the first thing they have to do is play defense,” Dutcher said earlier this week. “It's a culture. If you come to San Diego State, you have to want to defend.”

Defense has carried San Diego State to Mountain West titles, 30-win seasons and Sweet 16 appearances, but this is uncharted territory for the Aztecs. The Alabama upset was San Diego State’s first second-weekend NCAA tournament victory. The Creighton game was the Aztecs’ first time playing for a spot in the Final Four.

Only a few months ago, San Diego State and Creighton shared a charter flight en route to the Maui Invitational. Head coaches Brian Dutcher and Greg McDermott sat across the aisle from one-another for six hours, chatting about their teams and musing about the possibility of meeting in the Maui title game.

“And then we would be OK, McDermott said, “with one of us winning and one of us losing.”

The Aztecs and Blue Jays missed each other in Maui, but, as fate would have it, their paths would cross again on Sunday with a little more at stake. In a tense battle between two programs who had never advanced past the Sweet 16 before this week, San Diego State handled uncharted territory just a little bit better.