By Editor, Times of San Diego, a member of the San Diego Online News Association
Photo: the joyful Aztecs celebrate their win over Creighton, sending them to the Final Four. Photo credit: screen shot, CBS
March 26, 2023 (Louisville) - San Diego State bounced back against Creighton Sunday to make their first Final Four with a 57-56 win at the NCAA Tournament.
It was a rematch of the 2022 first-round game that ended in crushing disappointment for the Aztecs in the Midwest regional. Yet this time in the Elite Eight, that hammer fell on the Blue Jays, as a foul by Creighton’s Ryan Nembhard with 1.2 seconds left put Darrion Trammell at the line with the score tied at 56.
He missed the first free throw, but made the second, and after a last-second heave down the court by Creighton – and a long review – the officials declared the game over, with the victory going to San Diego State.
SDSU, a fifth seed in the South Region, now will move on to face Florida Atlantic, the ninth seed that won the East Region, at the Final Four in Houston on Saturday.
Trammell, breaking down while talking to CBS post-game, mentioned his family, including his grandfather and the brother who he lost, then choked out, “I’m just super excited right now, I can’t put this into words.”
Head coach Brian Dutcher, however, could. “That’s what March is about,” he said. “Players having their one shining moment.”
The No. 18 Aztecs (30-6), winners of in the Mountain West regular season and MW tournament, faced the Blue Jays (24-12), which finished third in the Big East, but lost in the semifinal of the conference tournament. Creighton, ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press Top 25 during the second-to-last week of the regular season, finished off the chart.
And an additional storyline – Adam Seiko got the chance to meet his brother, Blue Jay Arthur Kaluma, again on the court.
San Diego State’s elite defense, allowing just 58 points a game in the tournament, held the Blue Jays, who have averaged 81 during the tourney, to 33 in the opening half. But Creighton kept the Aztecs – who looked anxious at times, forcing plays and shooting air balls – at bay as well.
And Creighton was efficient, shooting 54% in the half to SDSU’s 43%. San Diego State also had two dry spells, including one nearly three minutes long at the end of the half.
It followed a Trammell jumper that tied the game at 28, but Baylor Scheierman immediately answered to put Creighton up by two. Kaluma then took advantage of a Jaedon LeDee turnover and hit a three to give the Blue Jays a 33-28 lead.
SDSU had its chances to close the half with a score, but missed three shots – by Trammell, Matt Bradley, then Trammell again at the buzzer.
SDSU built on that promising beginning, frustrating Creighton for much of the half. Yet the Blue Jays managed, even while missing all of their 10 three-point attempts in the half, to leap ahead again by seven, following a layup by Kaluma, three free throws by Scheierman and a dunk by Ryan Kalkbrenner.
As the clock neared the seven-minute mark, Keshad Johnson completed the three-point play after a turnaround jumper, and a foul by Kaluma. Then Trammell added a jumper to regain the lead 46-45.
After three more ties as the clock ticked down to four minutes, Kalkbrenner blocked a Trammell shot, but SDSU got the ball back, and Trammell fed Aguek Arop for a hook shot. Arop quickly added another to go up by four.
It was a mad dash to the finish, though. With under two minutes to play, and the game tied again, Mensah’s jumper gave the Aztecs the lead.
But Seiko tried to lob an inbound pass to Micah Parrish, but it sailed over him to land in Scheierman’s hands under the basket for an easy layup and a game tied at 56 with 34 seconds to play.
The stage was slowly set for Trammell’s heroics, as Butler moved the ball up court, eating up 28 seconds before being fouled. San Diego State, then Creighton called time, ratcheting up the tension.
Parrish, on the inbound pass, got the ball to Arop, who got it to Trammell. His jumper bounced off the front of the rim, but Nembhard had gotten a hand on him, leading to the key free throw.
But even then it wasn’t over, as the officials painstakingly reviewed Kalkbrenner’s long desperation pass. Arop and Kaluma stretched for it beneath Creighton’s basket with that precious last second ticking away.
Dutcher called it “controlled madness,” in which, without any more timeouts, he tried to draw up three possible plays depending on how much time might be put back on the clock and whether the Aztecs had possession of the ball.
He was still holding the whiteboard, pen in hand, when finally the official waved his arms to signify the game’s end. That set off a celebration that left Trammell, then Arop in tears, and Seiko consoling his brother as Parrish and Butler embraced.
The Blue Jays scored just 23 points on 28% shooting in the half and Butler proved to be his Aztecs’ hot hand this game, scoring nine – he would finish the game with 18, leading all scorers. Trammell had 12. Kalkbrenner had 17, and Kaluma was one of two Blue Jays with 12.
In addition to making the Final Four, San Diego State has hit a number of milestones during its postseason run:
- Winning its first Sweet 16 game in three tries after trips in 2011 and 2014.
- Defeating a No. 1 seed on its second try (lost to Duke in 2015), and
- Beating the nation’s No. 1 ranked team for the first time in five tries (dating back to 1980, and also in 2001, 2002 & 2018).
- Sending Dutcher to Houston, where he becomes the second oldest coach since 1998 to make his first appearance at the Final Four
The Aztecs made it to the South Region final by defeating Charleston, Furman and the tournament’s top seed, Alabama.