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San Diego State heads to first Final Four after rallying past Creighton

No. 5 seed Aztecs 57, No. 6 seed Bluejays 56

San Diego State forward Aguek Arop celebrates a victory against Creighton in the Elite Eight on Sunday in Louisville. (John Bazemore/AP)
6 min

LOUISVILLE — Brian Dutcher has watched San Diego State for more than two decades, first as an assistant and now as the coach, as the men’s basketball program has gone from a middling squad in the Mountain West to a contender with championship ambitions. He has seen talented teams fall short in the NCAA tournament and another group have its opportunity snatched away.

As his players tried to accomplish what this program never has, Dutcher watched calmly, hands on hips as he paced up and down the sideline during the tense final minutes of an Elite Eight matchup with Creighton. No signs of stress as San Diego State, finally on a long March Madness run, clung to a narrow lead down the stretch — not even when Darrion Trammell missed the first of two free throws with the game tied and one second on the clock.

But then Trammell made the second attempt, a go-ahead free throw in a 57-56 victory over the Bluejays that sent San Diego State to the Final Four for the first time in program history.

“March is for players,” Dutcher recently said. “I’m going to try to put them in a position to have their March moment.”

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And his players delivered: Trammell did so at the free throw line. Nathan Mensah, a senior forward, deftly defended one of the nation’s most dominant centers. Reserve forward Aguek Arop, long held back by injuries, scored a pair of baskets in the final minutes. Lamont Butler, with 18 points, turned into the badly needed offensive engine. The Aztecs’ vaunted defense, a collective effort and source of pride, stifled the Bluejays in the second half.

“I’m sure there were people that doubted we could do it, but we never doubted for a minute,” Dutcher said. “We’re there now, and we’re going to go and try to win the thing.”

Neither team led by more than four in the game’s final 12 minutes Sunday afternoon at KFC Yum Center. And with the score tied and six seconds remaining, the fifth-seeded Aztecs successfully got the ball inbounds — which they had failed to do on their previous possession — and Creighton’s Ryan Nembhard fouled Trammell on his attempted floater. The Aztecs on the bench watched with locked arms. Trammell, a 5-foot-10 senior and 74-percent free throw shooter, missed his first attempt from the foul line but made his second to lift San Diego State ahead.

“The moment wasn’t too big for me,” Trammell said. “Through everything I’ve been through, I feel like the opportunity was just set there for me.”

Creighton, the No. 6 seed in the South Region, had just 1.2 seconds to heave a pass down the court. The Bluejays never got a shot off, and the ball was tipped out of bounds. After a lengthy review, officials determined time had expired. Dutcher had his whiteboard and a marker in his hand — planning for every scenario, just in case — as the celebration began around him. The Aztecs will face ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic, another Final Four first-timer, in the national semifinals Saturday.

The Aztecs needed Trammell’s late free throw because of a blunder on the previous possession. They had led by two with 34 seconds remaining. With 7-foot-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner guarding inbounder Adam Seiko, the fifth-year guard lobbed the ball, and it landed in the hands of Creighton’s Baylor Scheierman, who was in the paint and scored an easy tying basket.

San Diego State (31-6) has an elite defense but an offense that sputters at times. For an extended stretch lasting about 10 minutes in the second half, the Aztecs struggled, making just 2 of 20 field goal attempts. The game didn’t slip out of reach because their defense forced Creighton into similar trouble. And then late in this tight game, San Diego State settled into a rhythm — just in time. The Aztecs made 7 of 11 field goal attempts in the final 7:09.

Trammell, who erupted for 21 points in the Sweet 16 victory over No. 1 seed Alabama, hit a go-ahead basket with 6:45 remaining. Creighton tied the score five times down the stretch, but the Bluejays never pulled ahead. The Aztecs, a veteran team, continued to generate just enough offense when it mattered most, even though Creighton (24-13) appeared to be the team with more scoring options.

“It’s loud in the gym,” Seiko said, “but we don’t get rattled.”

Kalkbrenner, the super efficient center for Creighton, scored 17 points but only made 8 of 17 attempts from the field. Kalkbrenner had made fewer than 50 percent of his field goal attempts in just four other games this season. Mensah, a 6-foot-10 senior, turned in an impressive defensive effort around the rim and finished with three blocks, all on attempts by Kalkbrenner.

Trailing by five at halftime, San Diego State clamped down on Creighton after the break to briefly grab a narrow lead, but then it missed 10 straight field goal attempts and fell into a seven-point hole. Starting with Butler’s three-pointer, San Diego State gradually climbed out of its deficit while its intense defensive effort limited Creighton. And then the Aztecs held on.

This group did what the 2020 team never had a chance to accomplish and what the great teams of the past — 2011 with Kawhi Leonard and 2014 with Xavier Thames — could not. Before this run, the program had never made it beyond the Sweet 16.

San Diego State had a remarkable 2019-20 season, winning 26 straight games to start the campaign, compiling a program-best winning percentage (.938) and climbing to a projected No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. A chance for the school’s best March Madness performance seemed in reach — and then the tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. In the past two seasons, the Aztecs lost in the first round, including a late collapse that led to an overtime defeat against the Bluejays in 2022.

This time, the Aztecs refused to crumble. Eventually — after Trammell’s free throw, the game-ending review and a celebration on the court — the players and staff members took turns trimming away pieces of the net. Dutcher ended the procession, separating the net from the rim, and lifted it as the crowd cheered. He turned on step of the ladder so his back faced his players, then he fell backward and let them catch him. When Dutcher arrived in the locker room, he told the players to turn down the music so he could speak.

“Either sing, dance or get out of the way,” he told them. “Aztecs are going to the Final Four.”