San Diego State pulled off a stunning upset Friday, eliminating Alabama at the NCAA Tournament’s South Regional in Louisville, Ky.
With the 71-64 win, the Aztecs (30-6) move on to once again face No. 6 Creighton (24-12) – which defeated No. 15 Princeton later Friday – in a Sunday game that will determine the South Region’s representative in the Final Four.
By reaching the Sweet 16, the team treated Brian Dutcher to his first wins at the tournament as a head coach and now they will take San Diego State to the Elite Eight for the first time. It will not only be SDSU’s deepest run ever in March Madness, but also the most success for a Mountain West team in the tournament.
The game featured two top-ranked teams, but at No. 1, Alabama’s reputation far exceeded SDSU’s at No. 18 and their seeding reflected the disparity. The Aztecs, slotted in as a fifth seed, took on not just the team atop the South Region, but the tournament’s top seed, with a 31-5 record.
Yet Dutcher’s crew has maintained all season that they were capable of a deep March run, regardless of the opponent.
“Nobody ever believes when you set big goals,” said Jaedon LeDee, who had 12 points, six rebounds and a key block in the win. “We believe, and that’s why we’re in the position that we are in now, and we’ll just keep pushing.”
In a very physical game, the veteran San Diego State team more than kept pace with the younger Crimson Tide, thanks Dutcher told TBS, to “gutty defense and rebounding.”
Neither team shot well in the opening half as defense dominated. SDSU held Alabama to 28% shooting and star Brandon Miller to four points in the half, resulting in a 28-23 lead as they went into the locker room.
They also achieved the feat with Matt Bradley on the bench.
The Aztecs’ leading scorer played only six minutes after being called for two fouls in the game’s first nine minutes. Dutcher pulled him and he didn’t return in the half.
Darrion Trammell led the team with nine points and Keshad Johnson added six as the Crimson Tide also kept a lid on SDSU, which shot 32%.
Upon the teams’ return, the faster pace favored Alabama, which tied the game at 30 after a Miller three-pointer and a layup by Charles Bediako.
The Crimson Tide had established an eight-point lead seven minutes into the half, thanks to a jumper by Jahvon Quinerly. In fact, in less than 10 minutes after the break, Alabama exceeded its output in the opening half, with 25 points.
And Bradley, though he logged another foul – Dutcher strongly objected to the call, drawing a technical – was cold, failing to land any of his four shots to begin the half.
But San Diego State turned it around, calling a time out after a dunk by Alabama’s Nick Pringle put his team up 48-39.
Trammell put up a three and promptly stole the ball from Miller for a layup to pull the Aztecs within four. He also set them off on a 12-0 run that put SDSU up by three.
“Then from there our team was in it,” the guard said. “That’s when the momentum changed.”
The Aztecs took a nine-point lead with just over two minutes to play on a Bradley jumper. That’s the same margin they held over Creighton in last year’s first round when they failed to score for almost the final four minutes of regulation, allowing their opponent to tie the game, and win in overtime 72-69.
The Crimson Tide cut the lead to two with 46 seconds left on a layup by Mark Sears, but the game would not be a repeat of 2022. Alabama quickly fouled Bradley ,who made both free throws. Micah Parrish put in three of his four from the line, including two to leave SDSU up by seven with 17 seconds to play.
“They weren’t nervous,” Dutcher said. “They just had a quiet confidence about them that they knew they had enough time to play themselves back into the game, and that’s what they did.”
The Aztecs outscored Alabama 32-16 over last 11 minutes of the game, driven by Trammell, who led all players with 21 points. Nathan Mensah had five blocks, helping to stifle the Crimson Tide, who averaged 82 points a game. Miller, for instance, had just nine points on 3-of-19 shooting.
San Diego State has a second chance Sunday against Creighton, unranked at season’s end, which beat Princeton 86-75. In addition, Adam Seiko will again get to take on his brother Arthur Kaluma, who is a Blue Jay.
Creighton, another school set to make its first appearance in its first Elite Eight, also defeated North Carolina State and a third-seed Baylor during its March Madness run.
Tipoff is at 11:20 a.m. Sunday in a game that will air on CBS.
It’s a golden opportunity for both sides as the Elite Eight will be without a No. 1 seed for the first time. Texas, a No. 2, is the highest seed remaining after defeating Xavier in a Midwest semifinal Friday.
The looming challenge is why his team won’t “over-celebrate,” Dutcher said.
“There’s another step to be had,” he said. “This is not the end of the journey. This is the next step, and we’re waiting to take it.”