By Zach Engberg
San Diego State men’s basketball’s run in the NCAA Tournament was a short one, as the Mountain West Conference Tournament champions fell to the University of Houston Thursday afternoon, with a 67-65 score.
After a miracle run entering the tournament, winning their last nine games, the Aztecs’ (22-11) season ended on an unanswered prayer, as senior guard and team captain Trey Kell missed a straight-on, turnaround 30-footer as time expired.
“We have a play for that,” Kell said after the loss. “It’s called home run… Simple read. It’s either catch it and throw it to the guy streaking to the corner or if I have a good look, turn around and square up and shoot it. And I wasn’t able to knock it down.”
Much like how they closed the conference season and tournament, the No. 11 seed Aztecs – who trailed by as many as 13 points in the second half – furiously rallied, tying the game with 29 seconds left on a three by junior guard Devin Watson.
But SDSU could not stop Houston’s Rob Gray, who scored 39 points, making more field goals (12) than the rest of his team (10), and who dropped in the final bucket, a windmill layup in between three SDSU defenders with one second left.
Dutcher said in the postgame presser that he was proud of his team, the first he has led as head coach of the Aztecs.
“It’s March. We had a March-type shot to win the game and didn’t go in,” Dutcher said. “I’m so proud of my team, the effort they put forward today. To come from 13 down in the second half and fight all the way back in the game and have a shot to win it in the end, I couldn’t be more proud of a group than I am of this one.”
The difference in the game – aside from Gray’s dominance – was SDSU’s struggles from free-throw line.
The Aztecs, who have historically struggled from the charity stripe, shot only 21-35 from the line, squandering several chances to close the gap late in the second half.
“That’s an awful lot to miss, Dutcher said. “So we left some points on the free-throw line obviously. If we could have made a few more of those, the outcome might have been different. But that’s basketball. You have to step up there and make them when they’re important.”
Aztecs fall to No. 21/19 Houston, 67-65, in a heartbreaker. Thanks for all of your support this season! pic.twitter.com/eKzXG3zD3E
— Aztec M. Basketball (@Aztec_MBB) March 16, 2018
Luckily for the Aztecs, three of their starters – freshmen forwards Matt Mitchell and Jalen McDaniels and junior guard Devin Watson – will return next year with tournament experience.
McDaniels, who entered the starting lineup halfway into the season, led the team with 18 points and held his own at the line, shooting 9-12.
Sadly for Kell and Pope, their careers will end with a last-second loss.
The duo, who have one tournament win and this season’s MW conference championship to their SDSU legacy, combined for 23 points and 19 rebounds in the heartbreaking loss.
Dutcher brought the Aztecs to the tournament in his first year as head coach, one of 15 first-year head coaches in the Big Dance this season. Dutcher was a longtime assistant to Steve Fisher, who won the championship in his first season as head coach at the University of Michigan in 1989.
Rob Gray shot 12-25, and all the other Cougars shot 10-34, less than 30 percent, from the field.