Please also see Aztecs Fans Pack Viejas As San Diego Grateful for Moment.
In a season of milestones, the Aztecs (32-7) couldn’t achieve the final step, a national crown, in the face of the heavily favored Huskies (31-8), who won their third championship since 2011 and their fifth since 1999.
Yet SDSU gave the Mountain West conference a representative in the title game for the first time while attempting to become the first fifth seed ever to come out on top.
UConn relentlessly pressured San Diego State, but the gutty Aztecs, down 12 at the half, battled back to make it a five-point game with just over five minutes to play.
“We had to be at our best. We weren’t at our best. A lot had to do with UConn,” head coach Brian Dutcher said, while calling the Huskies “very deserving” of the title
Connecticut head coach Dan Hurley said his team played at times “with a chip on our shoulders,” but added that his players “knew the level we could play at” even during dark times.
The teams had to dispatch better seeds to get to the championship game, a matchup of the winners from the South and West regions. No. 5 SDSU prevailed over the tournament’s top seed, Alabama, while No. 4 UConn crushed perennial power Gonzaga.
But they did it in different ways. San Diego State only overpowered Furman, outlasting their opponents in a series of tightly contested games, the last two by just one point. UConn, meanwhile, posted double-digit margins of victory in each of their five tournament wins.
The start portended good things for SDSU as they established an early lead, 10-6, after three-pointers by Lamont Butler and Darrion Trammell, followed by jumpers by Keshad Johnson and Matt Bradley.
The smooth start, however, did not hold. San Diego State, prone to offensive droughts, suffered a remarkable one, going 11 minutes without a field goal, and UConn outscored them 23-5 during that juncture. The Aztecs’ only offense came on free throws by Johnson, Bradley and Nathan Mensah.
Darrion Trammell broke the dry spell with a jumper in the paint with 5:25 left and Butler added a three, but Tristen Newton and Joey Calcaterra had threes that gave their team brief 16-point leads.
SDSU had a glimmer of hope, though, as they held UConn scoreless over the final three minutes of the half, while Johnson and Trammell, with jumpers, narrowed the gap.
The Aztecs shot 29%, and had no points off the bench, a typical strength for them. That compares to UConn’s 50%, as the Huskies, led by Newton, Jordan Hawkins and Adama Sonogo, went into the break with a 36-24 lead.
Bradley opened the scoring in the second half, but the UConn lead grew to 15 before Houston native Jaedon LeDee led the charge that gave the Huskies a scare.
He put in two jumpers while Johnson added a three and Trammell had a layup to pull closer at 56-50. After Sonogo scored, and Butler drove to the basket for a layup, Johnson hit two free throws to make it 60-55 with 5:19 remaining.
And they executed the comeback despite having to hold back due to fouls.
“We did our best to hit them and try and secure rebounds, but then we also got in a little foul
trouble earlier in the half,” Adam Seiko said. (At the) 13-minute mark, they’re already
in the bonus, which was tough.”
It was all Huskies after that, as Hawkins answered with a three moments later to start a 16-4 run UConn run. With 3:41 to play, they had re-established a double-digit lead and didn’t relinquish it again as SDSU finished the game going 1-for-9 from the field.
“I’m not going to lie, they have a lot of weapons. They were pretty good. To beat them, we had
to make shots … And you had to have a really good game to beat those dudes on the offensive end,” Bradley said. “But defensively we fought hard … They battled, and we battled, too.”
Newton led all scorers with 19, and had a double-double, as did Sonogo. Both had 10 rebounds, while Sonogo, who was named the tournament’s outstanding player, had 17 points. The Huskies also made 21 of their 23 free throws in the closing half.
Johnson scored 14 for the Aztecs. Butler – who made the all-Tournament team – and Trammell added 13. The team shot 32% for the game, and ended up with just 10 points from the bench. To knock off favored Alabama, they needed 28 from their reserves.
SDSU, which regularly sets the pace in the MW, captured the conference’s regular-season and tournament titles, and though well regarded, often found themselves tagged as the underdog – even against lower seeds – during March Madness.
Dutcher consistently maintained that if the Aztecs played on their terms – basically determined, pesky defense, with just enough offense – they could beat UConn. That didn’t happen, but as Aguek Arop reflected, the team “put together a special year and a special run.”
And Bradley, like Seiko and Arop, a senior who has completed his college career, thinks the 2022-23 team has planted a seed for the Aztecs who remain with the program.
“I’m so lucky to be part of the team where I was able to set the precedent for what
this team has to come when it comes to postseason play, and moving forward, we’ve got a taste of it,” he said. “And everybody’s like – I can see it in everybody’s faces returning, they want it again.”