Aztecs’ National Championship hopes become a reality as they advance to Final Four for first time in school history

The SDSU defense has willed them into the deepest tournament run in school history


Huy Huynh

Junior guard Lamont Butler drives on senior guard Isaiah Stevens in the Mountain West quarterfinals on March 9, 2023.

by Jake Enrico, Sports Writer

Sweet 16 Game versus Alabama 

Many counted out the San Diego State University men’s basketball team before its program’s first Sweet 16 appearance with good reason, but the scarlet and black shut down the pre-match talk and shocked the world.

The Aztecs have rarely been underdogs this season, let alone as big as they were against the NCAA tournament one seed, Alabama. The Crimson Tide came into the Sweet 16 matchup as the SEC champion and the nation’s number one seed as of the latest AP polls.

It was like David and Goliath, as SDSU did not shy away from the moment and defeated Alabama 71-64, to advance to the Elite Eight. The Aztecs faced their toughest matchup yet, with Alabama multiple Alabama players being highly scouted NBA prospects, including projected top-three pick, freshman Brandon Miller.

How did the Aztecs handle such a difficult puzzle most teams could not solve?

They not only held the Tide to its third-lowest point total of their season but limited Miller to 3-19 shooting for just nine points. Miller averaged nearly 19 points per game and led one of the top offenses in the entire country.

Credit always goes to the Aztec defense as the team has so many strong defenders, but senior forward Keshad Johnson was tasked with guarding Miller for the majority of this game and he made things as tough as they’ve been for the SEC player of the year. 

“You have to try your best to make things as tough as possible and that’s all I did,” Johnson said. “I just gave 110% effort. Credit to my teammates also. When I switched off of him, they also did a great job of making things hard on him too. It’s an all-around team effort. It’s not just myself. It’s a team effort.”

SDSU made life very difficult for him early, holding him to an 0-4 start from the field and two quick fouls on top of that. This helped the Aztecs grab an 11-8 lead with just over 11 minutes remaining. 

It has seemed like every game for SDSU, a different player is the difference maker. This one was Darrion Trammell’s night as the senior transfer put up 21 points to lead all scorers and arguably have his best game of the season. Trammell also added three 3-pointers, the same number  Alabama hit as a team.

“I knew what kind of coverage they ran as far as ball screens, and that’s something I was working on all week,” Trammell said. “I mean, at this point in the year you kind of just have to have that confidence that you’re going to knock those shots down that you’ve been working on.”

The Aztecs were holding their own early but just under the midway point in the half, Miller finally got on the board with back-to-back baskets to give his team a 17-16 lead.

As the bench has done all season long, they came up big yet again as senior guard Adam Seiko and junior forward Jaedon LeDee scored six straight to get the lead back. The Aztecs finished the half strong as Johnson and Trammell closed it out with back-to-back baskets and a five-point SDSU lead.

SDSU’s defense held Alabama to just 23 first half points and forced seven turnovers as well. They led 28-23 going into the break, about as good as head coach Brian Dutcher could have wanted.

“Proud of our guys. You know, we played a really solid first half,” Dutcher said. “It felt like we turned it over 80 times. It was only five times in the first half, but it seems like both defenses were controlling the tempo of the game. Nothing was easy.”

Alabama opened the second half on a 11-2 run and retook the lead. They dominated the boards creating multiple second chance opportunities for their shooters.

Things started to take a turn for the worst as Alabama finally found an offensive spark as standout senior guard Jahvon Quinerly hit one of the few 3-pointers to extend his team’s lead to eight. Basketball is a game of runs, and Alabama had their best run up until the 11:40 mark of the first half after Miller found Nick Pringle down low for a dunk and a 48-39 Alabama lead.

“We took a time-out I think right by the 12-minute mark, and then Darrion came out of the time-out and hit a three and a two, and he changed the momentum,” Dutcher said. “Then we got settled back in.”

SDSU responded to the nine-point deficit with a 12-0 run, after eight straight from Trammell. He sparked the Aztecs right back into it and the team had life once again. 

The defense forced a Miller turnover with just under four minutes left in the game and LeDee hit a big jumper to give SDSU a nine-point lead. The belief that Alabama was about to be upset started to show in the Aztec bench and fans.

Everyone had to hold their breath one last time as the Crimson Tide cut the SDSU lead to just two with 46 seconds left.

Senior guard and leading scorer Matt Bradley struggled the majority of the game in foul trouble but when it mattered most, he came through. Bradley made two clutch free throws to get the lead back to two possessions and allow the defense to get yet another stop on the other end. Micah Parrish hit three free throws late as well to close out the game and make the dream a reality.

However, as many Aztec fans were likely stunned and ecstatic, coach Dutcher remained unphased by his team’s accomplishment. 

“It’s just parity. That’s what it is,” Dutcher said. “You know, there’s not a lot of difference between the best team in the country and the worst team in the country. You’re seeing that on this stage.”

The Aztecs advanced to face Creighton in a rematch of last year’s Round of 64 heartbreak. SDSU continues the historic season and keeps dancing in the Elite Eight.

Elite Eight Game versus Creighton 

It is starting to seem like it’s written in the stars for San Diego State. The Southern California representative is moving into a place no one thought they would go as the Aztecs are headed to its programs first ever Final Four.

There have been many different storylines for this season’s Aztecs. One that has remained constant is righting their wrongs and doing something the program has never done.

The Aztecs had yet another chance to avenge a past defeat as they drew the Creighton Bluejays in the Elite Eight. Just as they did in the Sweet 16, they erased a second half deficit and made plays when they needed to late to close out the Bluejays and win 57-56. The game was decided in the last seconds and it almost was a deja vu moment for San Diego State fans everywhere.

The SDSU defense is as good as any in the country as they held a strong offensive Creighton team to just 2-11 from deep and 56 total points, its second lowest point total of the year. The Aztecs also forced 10 turnovers including three blocks from Mountain West defensive player of the year, Nathan Mensah. 

Junior guard Lamont Butler led all scorers with 18 points including a perfect 2-2 from behind the arc. Butler, as he has done so well throughout the season, played aggressive on-ball defense constantly making things hard on the Bluejay shooters.

“Just getting to my mid-range,” Butler said. “I was knocking those down. Shots I hit all year, shots I worked on. I had some open looks from three that I took, and I was fortunate to make it. I’m just glad they went in.”

Unlike against Alabama, SDSU found themselves in a bit of a hole early down 17-9 after Creighton sophomore Ryan Nembhard, brother of NBA player Andrew Nembhard, hit a jump shot to extend his team’s lead.

Trammell, 21 points in the Sweet 16, picked up right where he left off and responded with a three. The Aztecs remained down for the majority of the half however SDSU went on a quick 6-0 run as Trammell tied it back up at 28. The senior transfer finished with 12 points.

Creighton capitalized off a LeDee turnover and sophomore Arthur Kaluma, brother of Aztec Adam Seiko, hit a 3-pointer to give the Bluejays a 33-28 lead at half. Center  Ryan Kalkbrenner was having his way with SDSU early scoring 10 of his team high 17 points.

Dutcher has built an identity with this team when dealing with adversity, that has flourished in the NCAA tournament especially. The Aztecs found themselves down at halftime but responded holding Creighton to their season lowest second half points total with just 23 points. SDSU also held the Bluejays to an insurmountable 0-10 shooting from behind the arc, and just 27% from the field. 

Mensah, a now two-time Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, had a phenomenal defensive performance in the second half and made many key plays in slowing down the Creighton attack. 

“I mean, when you are playing a really good center like Kalkbrenner, he is going to score some baskets, and you just try to make it as hard as you can on him,” Dutcher said. “So I thought Nate, as a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, made it hard.”

There really has been no quit in this Aztec team as midway through the second half, SDSU faced a seven point deficit after Kalkbrenner finished an and-one dunk. The Aztecs were down 41-34 but a couple of offensive rebounds on their next trip down lit that spark right back up.

They went on a 15-4 over the course of the next eight minutes and a big jumper from Butler gave SDSU a 50-48 lead. The Aztecs were five minutes away from a final four bid, but they knew closing this game out would be no easy task.

Mensah and Kalkbrenner had been battling all game and both of the bigs hit big shots late for their sides. Creighton’s center got the Bluejays back even at 54 but Mensah went right back down the other end and hit arguably the biggest shot of the game with a jumper from the elbow. SDSU led 56-54 with 1:36 left. 

The Aztecs forced a big stop on the defensive end but when taking the ball out of bounds, a miscommunication between guards Seiko and Parrish led to a SDSU turnover and easy game-tying layup for Creighton. SDSU was stunned and the momentum had fallen right back over to the Jays.

SDSU had a chance to win the game and they did just that. Trammell, the hero of the Sweet 16, played hero one more time and drew a foul with one second left to have a chance to send his team to Houston from the foul line. Trammell missed the first one to make things that much more nerve-racking but confidently sunk the second shot and won the game, 57-56.

“Just having the utmost confidence in myself,” Trammell said. “I feel like I’ve shot probably 1,000 free throws in the last week. So at the end of the day, I feel like I put in the work to be able to step up and have the confidence that I was going to make them.”

Creighton went for a hail mary chance, but in no better fashion, the Aztecs forced a turnover secured the win.

SDSU won the South Region with Trammell and Butler earning a spot on the All-region team. The Aztecs have accomplished something never done before at SDSU and Dutcher has had this planned years before his time as the head coach.

“Well, it’s a vision Coach Fisher had all those years ago when he came to the Mesa, and we

recruited and told people this is what we were going to do,” Dutcher said. “They all thought it was just recruiting talk, but here we sit.

“But we’re grateful to be advancing, I told the team in the locker room — they had the music going. I walked in, and I told them, turn it down. I said, either sing, dance, or get out of the way. The Aztecs are going to the Final Four.”

The last step for a chance at a national title for SDSU will be against number nine seed Florida Atlantic University at NRG stadium in Houston. This also is the FAU’s first final four appearance and the Owls rank top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Tip off is set for 3:09 p.m.