Aztecs bow out of NCAA Tournament in heartbreaking fashion, fall to Creighton 72-69

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Noelani Sapla

Joshua Tomaic (left) and Trey Pulliam (right) go down the court during the 2022 Mountain West Tournament. Pulliam scored 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting during SDSU’s 72-69 loss to Creighton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

by Jason Freund, Sports Editor

At the beginning of the NCAA Tournament, there were four Mountain West teams.

After just one round, all four of them have been eliminated from the tournament.

For a good portion of their match, it seemed like San Diego State (23-10) was going to be the lone Mountain West team to advance to the second round over the Creighton Bluejays (24-11).

At one point, SDSU even held a 14-point lead in the first half after a wild shooting spree from sophomore Chad-Baker Mazara and a layup from senior Tahirou Diabate put the Aztecs up 35-21.

The defense, led by senior Nathan Mensah, was doing its part in limiting Creighton’s inside scoring while tying up Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner.

Everything was going swimmingly for the Aztecs.

Until the mistakes started piling up. A missed shot here, a turnover there, a missed free throw over here, more turnovers, a nine-point lead blown with two-and-a-half minutes to spare, Mensah fouling out and more missed free throws led to the Aztecs crumbling in the final minutes to the Bluejays and stumbling back to San Diego after a 72-69 defeat.

It was a game of deja vu for SDSU. Earlier this season against Nevada, the team blew an 18-point lead in the second half and needed two last-second blocks to sneak away with a one-point victory.

The collapse began in the second half but warning signs started to show in the first half after SDSU scored just one bucket — a layup by senior Aguek Arop — in the span of four-and-a-half minutes.

But despite nudging themselves closer and closer to the edge of a proverbial cliff, the Scarlet and Black were still matching the Bluejays shot-for-shot.

Still, Creighton was lurking in the distance. What once seemed like a surefire SDSU victory didn’t seem so certain as the minutes slowly ticked by in the second half.

A heavily contested 3-pointer from Trey Pulliam gave the Aztecs a 62-53 lead with just four minutes to go in the second half. For the moment, it appeared to be the shot that put the lead out of reach.

Minutes ticked by again and the score didn’t change. The Aztecs seemingly had the game on cruise control… until Mensah picked the worst possible moment to pick up his fifth foul.

Mensah, who leads SDSU this season in personal fouls, is no stranger to foul trouble as he has picked up multiple fouls in all but five games this season.

But Mensah was sitting on four fouls with two minutes to spare and was the pivotal glue holding the SDSU defense together. After senior Alex O’Connell drew the foul, Mensah was out of the game and forced to watch the rest of the game from the bench.

O’Connell naturally sank both of his free throws and something awoke within Creighton’s offense. A combination of hot shooting and poorly timed turnovers tied the game up at 62 points each.

The Aztecs finally got lucky in the end as senior Matt Bradley was fouled with seven seconds remaining in the game to head to the charity stripe for a one-and-one.

In their final regular-season matchup against Boise State, Bradley had the opportunity to ice the game by making two free throws. Both free throws missed their mark and the Broncos rushed down the court to score the game-winning shot.

After that match, Bradley discussed how things would be different if he was given another chance in a similar situation. Now, here he was in a similar situation. So, how did his free throw attempt go?

Clank. Deja vu, thy name is Matt Bradley.

The game was to be decided in overtime. After a short duel — that saw Arop miss the front end of a one-and-one while Bradley missed one of his two free throws — freshman Trey Alexander hit a jump shot, got fouled and converted his shot from the charity stripe to put Creighton up by three.

An inbound play was drawn up for Arop to hand the ball off to Bradley and set up a screen to create space for Bradley. A Creighton defender was able to slip past Arop and disrupt Bradley enough for him to fumble the ball away.

Thus, the final Mountain West team made their exit from the Tournament in a heartbreaking fashion.