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San Diego State ousts top-seeded Alabama as the No. 1s keep dropping

Aztecs’ 71-64 win sends tournament’s top overall seed packing

San Diego State's Keshad Johnson celebrates after a 71-64 Sweet 16 win over No. 1 seed Alabama in Louisville. The win secured the Aztecs' first trip to the Elite Eight. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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LOUISVILLE — San Diego State had a promising formula: Use its relentless defense to fluster Alabama and hope its offense does just enough. The first part of the plan worked, making the top-seeded Crimson Tide finally look vulnerable.

San Diego State’s only problem? Its own offense, which was stifled by Alabama’s size and skill. And then Darrion Trammell had an answer — a badly needed response when the game had started to slip out of reach. Trammell nearly erased a sizable deficit on his own and carried the fifth-seeded Aztecs to a 71-64 victory, making Alabama the third No. 1 seed to exit the NCAA tournament.

“We’ve got an experienced team,” Coach Brian Dutcher said. “They’ve been in a million of these situations over their careers. And so they didn’t shy away from the moment.”

Trammell, a 5-foot-10 transfer from Seattle University, has slumped at times through this season. Not here. Trammell scored 21 points, none more important than his eight straight midway through the second half after the Aztecs had fallen into nine-point hole with their offense sputtering.

“I was telling my team in the huddle, ‘It’s March.’ They went on their run. We can’t get down on ourselves. You have to keep playing,” Trammell said. “Why can’t we be the team that comes back and wins after being [down] nine against a No. 1 Alabama team? That was our belief, and it was great.”

And then Trammell provided the decisive burst that “gave us a lot of hope that we could win this game,” senior guard Matt Bradley said.

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San Diego State (30-6) successfully turned this Sweet 16 matchup at KFC Yum Center into just what it wanted: a physical, defensive battle. And the team’s late surge was enough to earn a trip to the Elite Eight for the first time in program history. The Aztecs will meet Creighton for a chance to play in the Final Four.

“We say our goal is to win a national championship, so we can’t act surprised when we have an opportunity to advance to the Final Four,” Dutcher said. “That’s what we tell them when we recruit them, and it’s just not words to get them to come here. It’s words we believe in.”

Once fifth-year bench player Adam Seiko hit a three-pointer to finish the 12-0 run that Trammell started, the Aztecs had a three-point lead with 8:43 remaining. Alabama, the tournament’s top overall seed, made a late push with a desperate press. Mark Sears scored seven straight points during a 32-second stretch — which included San Diego State’s Jaedon LeDee missing the front end of a one-and-one to keep Alabama’s hope alive.

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The next time Alabama fouled, Bradley calmly made two free throws, providing a four-point cushion. Alabama missed four three-pointers in the final minute — a recurring issue for the Tide, which finished the game 3 for 27 from beyond the arc — and the Tide kept testing the Aztecs’ ability to navigate its press and make free throws. San Diego State managed both well enough.

In the game’s final moments, players on the bench were already hugging one another and fans had their cellphones lifted, ready to capture the celebration.

The Aztecs earned it, countering Alabama’s surge early in the second half. The Crimson Tide’s star freshman, Brandon Miller, limited by foul trouble in the first half, hit a three just after the intermission. Then his teammates generated an 8-0 burst that pushed Alabama (31-6) into a lead that continued to grow.

Miller, a versatile 6-foot-9 forward and soon-to-be NBA draft lottery pick, is Alabama’s engine. But against the Aztecs, he endured a quiet start that turned into a quiet evening.

Alabama, which had showcased its athletic excellence on the court all season, has faced intense scrutiny because of Miller’s link to the January shooting death of a young mother. A detective with the Tuscaloosa police department testified last month that Miller drove a gun to a now-former teammate, who handed the weapon to a friend, who shot and killed 23-year-old Jamea Jonae Harris. Miller has not been charged with a crime, is not considered a suspect and has cooperated with police, the school has said. Miller’s attorney has said his client “never touched” the weapon allegedly used in the killing.

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That tragedy — and Miller’s presence at the scene — followed the Tide through the second half of the season. But he had continued to excel. Until he ran into the Aztecs, who held him to nine points on 3-for-19 shooting (including just 1 for 10 from beyond the arc) and six turnovers.

Alabama often has an electric, up-tempo offense. But against that suffocating San Diego State defense, the Crimson Tide couldn’t get a boost from the perimeter, and by halftime, San Diego State had built a 28-23 lead.

Alabama returned to the court with an answer. But San Diego State returned to its formula, this time with a burst of offense as well, and the Crimson Tide ran out of responses.