Aztecs prepare for first round of NCAA

by Agustin Gonzalez

Antonio Zaragoza / Photo Editor
Antonio Zaragoza / Photo Editor

When Steve Fisher saw San Diego State’s first opponent in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, the men’s basketball head coach’s mind immediately flashed back to Jan. 9, 2008.

More than three years before the sellout crowds, the Top 10 national ranking and the lofty postseason aspirations, SDSU played Northern Colorado at what was then Cox Arena. The Aztecs were carrying a 13-game home winning streak into the match, and were heavily favored to crush their Big Sky Conference opponent. But the Bears had other plans.

In that game, Northern Colorado shot 47.9 percent from the field and out-rebounded SDSU 36-20. Most importantly, it recorded a 62-56 win against the shell-shocked Aztecs.

“When I heard and saw Northern Colorado in the (NCAA Tournament) draw, my first reaction was the same as D.J. Gay’s,” Fisher said. “I remembered Jan. 9, 2008, when they came into our building and beat us in every phase of the game, from coaching, which is what you start with, to execution … They beat us up. That’s what I remembered.”

Gay remembered something else, something he would never, could never, forget.

“We got booed out of this arena,” Gay said.

That’s right. What seems so incomprehensible now, with Aztec fever at an all-time high, actually happened. The defeated team left the court with its tail between its legs, boos raining down from the fans like shrapnel from a grenade.

A big reason for the Northern Colorado win in 2008 was Devon Beitzel. Then just a redshirt freshman, Beitzel came off the bench to score a team-high 15 points and had four steals.

“He killed us my freshman year,” Gay said. “He’s a very good guard, a very good shooter, can score in a variety of ways. He’s the heart and soul of their team from what I saw, and he’s going to be a hard guy to deal with.”

The very next season, SDSU went to Greeley, Colo. and beat the Bears in a hard-fought battle. In fact, it took a career night from junior forward Tim Shelton to get the win.

“We played them here and they beat us and I remember our home fans booed us off the court, and that was crazy,” Shelton said. “Then we played them there, and that was the first time I didn’t miss a shot all game. So I’m kind of like, ‘Northern Colorado, hey, let’s go play them again.’”

Shelton and the Aztecs will get their chance this afternoon when they take on the Bears in Tucson, Ariz. Even though it is the first time 15-seeded Northern Colorado has been to the Big Dance, getting a win (which would be a first-ever NCAA Tournament victory for SDSU) won’t be easy.

The Big Sky champion Bears are red hot, having won seven games in a row and 17 of their last 20. Not to mention they still have Beitzel, who is averaging 21.4 points per game and shooting 38.4 percent from beyond the arc. Fisher compared the redshirt senior to another 6-foot, superstar guard who SDSU fans love to hate.

“We’ve had experience guarding a guy like Beitzel: Jimmer Fredette,” Fisher said. “And we didn’t have very good success with him, so we’re going to have to guard this team. They’ve got a lot of offense and they compete really hard.”

Gay, with Jan. 9, 2008 still in the back of his mind, is ready to play right now.

“We’re all excited,” Gay said. “We just can’t wait to get back on the court and have the opportunity to keep building on this historic season. Northern Colorado, from what I remember, from what I’ve seen this year, they’re a very tough team. They have no fear and they’re going to fight till the end. We’re expecting a hard-fought game.”