San Diego State Stops Enemies With Disruptive Defense

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Brian Dutcher lays out San Diego’s state mission in plain language to avoid confusion.

“We’re a defensive first team,” the sixth-year coach said after the Aztecs beat Creighton 57-56 on Sunday and in their first Final Four. “Everyone knows about us, and our defense is carrying us.”

The challenge for Florida Atlantic, UConn or Miami this weekend in Houston is to solve the disruptive mix of fast hands and physicality the experienced Aztecs have used to wear down their opponents.

Only New Mexico, Nevada and Boise State have cracked this defensive code since the start of the year, with the last setback dating back nearly a month. Fifth-seeded San Diego State (31-6) is 14-1 since Feb. 3 and it added resistance in March Madness triumphs over top seed Alabama, No. 12 College of Charleston and No. 13 Furman.

All three teams shot just 32% against a rotation of veterans and transfers who bought into Dutcher’s philosophy. Alabama committed 14 turnovers, had eight blocked shots and was held 18 points below its season average in the 71-64 Sweet 16 loss.

Sixth-seeded Creighton shot 40% in the Southern Region final but only 28% while missing all 10 attempts from long range in a pivotal second half. The Bluejays finished 2 of 17 from deep, and opponents San Diego State made 16 of 94 attempts (17%) in the tournament.

The first entrant in the Mountain West Conference Final Four, the Aztecs will face the FAU on Saturday.

San Diego State had to wait a few minutes before they could celebrate their victory over Creighton. Officials needed time to review a last-second pitch-length pass by Creighton that was deflected out of bounds. Aztecs striker Aguek Arop jumped for the ball with Creighton’s Arthur Kaluma, a perfect example of a team embracing the physical game.

“They’re playing a brand of basketball that’s built on toughness, on intelligence,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “They don’t take a lot of bad shots and they’re very physical when the ball goes up the glass.”

Alabama coach Nate Oats said after Friday night’s loss that San Diego State’s physique bothers his team and takes their motivations away. He added: “They’re a solid, physical, strong and experienced team, and especially in the first half we didn’t come out prepared.”

San Diego State is also patient, due to its maturity.

Seven seniors are among the nine top classes which include four transfers. Although offense is important, Dutcher points out that playing defense creates opportunities at the other end.

The numbers show that everyone agrees with that.

The Aztecs rank 35th nationally in field goal defense at 41% and are tied for 70th with 4.0 blocks per game. Creighton was their 16th opponent held below 60 points, nearly 10 below his coming average.

“We make sure that every time we play against a team, it’s five guys against one,” said 6-foot-10 senior forward Nathan Mensah. “We don’t take that for granted and we know our defense will always play as the game goes.”

That faith in the defense was key to overcoming second-half deficits against Alabama and Creighton.

San Diego State’s halftime lead became a nine-point hole against the Crimson Tide before it scored 12 straight points to take the lead for good with 8:43 remaining. The Aztecs rallied from a 43-37 deficit against Creighton and never trailed again despite five draws in the 6:23 final.

One of San Diego State’s happiest players after the game was leading scorer Matt Bradley, who was held to eight points over the weekend after averaging 12.8. While he was away, he saw the Aztecs get big saves and timely contributions from Arop and Mensah.

“We’ve got seven, eight guys who could just get a bucket for us, get a big save and just make a game-winner,” Bradley said. “It’s a testament to what this team has in terms of personnel.”

Combine that depth with defense, and San Diego State is in a place it could only dream of before the season.


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