San Diego State arrived at the Sweet 16 rounding second base, heading for third. On the intensity meter, 1 to 10, the Aztecs were an 11.
They pressed. They kept pushing. They fought like a fish on a hook.
From start to finish, this would be the greatest basketball game in San Diego State history, almost as if basketball gods had chosen March 27, 2014, as the day to divinely set the Aztecs apart.
Arizona all but fell in line, a victim the way it had been a victim on the same court 16 years ago against Utah. Same story. No. 1 seed runs into world-beater.
Nick Johnson was 0 for 10 from the field. Everybody but Elliott Pitts seemed to be in foul trouble. It was snap, crackle … but the Wildcats wouldn’t pop.
“This is why you spend those hot summer days in the gym in August,” said UA assistant coach Damon Stoudamire. “A game like this exhausts you if you let it. Our guys didn’t let it.”
For 32 minutes Thursday night at the Honda Center, the Aztecs were the better team. The NCAA had on standby a jet at a nearby airport, fueled, ready to take the Wildcats on a sobering midnight flight to Tucson. Season over.
UA assistant athletic director for event operations Matt Brown, who arranges the logistics, smiled 30 minutes after the game saying, “I had my finger on the button,” a computer order that would complete the travel arrangements.
In Tucson, hearts fluttered. Could this special season end so abruptly? So cruelly?
“What happened,” said Stoudamire, “was that it was an Instant Classic. Big steal. Big shots. Big win.”
With 10:13 remaining, Johnson drove into the paint and rolled a shot off the rim that dipped into the basket, then came out, rolled around for a bit and fell into the hands of the Aztecs. That was Johnson’s 10th consecutive miss. San Diego State led 44-41.
“I just tried to stay with it,” Johnson said. “The guys kept me up, kept saying ‘next play.’ ”
Arizona was a master of the late-finish this season, the “next play,” beating Michigan, Stanford, Utah, Oregon, Duke and, yes, San Diego State, with late-game lightning. But never was it so uncomfortable as it was Thursday, with such dire consequences.
The Aztecs had essentially turned basketball into a Greco-Roman wrestling match for 30 minutes, winning the rebounding game 37-29 on pure willpower, but bit by bit, the Aztecs paid for expending so much energy.
“Down the stretch,” said UA center Kaleb Tarczewski, “we really forced ourselves on them.”
The Play of the Game (and maybe the year) was T.J. McConnell’s steal from Xavier Thames with 2:44 remaining. McConnell hit the floor, chasing the loose ball as if he were chasing the winning Powerball ticket.
He had the presence of mind to toss it to Gabe York rather than the safer play, a timeout. York fed Johnson, who was open for a bunny.
The game was not over, not with a 56-51 lead, but in a way, it was.
Matt Brown took his finger from his laptop. The plane never made it to the runway.
“It was pure hustle,” said UA freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. “T.J. wanted that ball, and he got on the floor and got it. That had a huge impact on the game and changed the atmosphere of the building. Everything just felt different after that steal.”
And then it was Nick Of Time time.
Had Nick Johnson missed any of the next 11 shots he attempted — 10 foul shots and a dagger-inducing three-ball with 1:50 remaining — the game might have changed. Who makes 11 straight shots in the last two minutes of a Sweet 16 game? Or any game?
“We were trying to say ‘foul anybody but Nick,’ ” said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher. “But they did a nice job of finding a way to get him the ball. He’s a player. He knows how to play, and good players stay with it.”
What looked to be the worst night of Johnson’s college career turned into one of the best.
It is protocol at the NCAA tournament for the losing team to be first to the media interview center, dragging its tired bones up a set of stairs and then mostly staring at the ground while the inquisitors wait impatiently for the winning team to arrive.
Fisher, who is 69 and won the national title at Michigan 25 years ago, knows how it goes. His team has been in the last five NCAA tournaments but always has gone first at the podium in the Biggest Game of the Season.
“One of these days,” Fisher said. “We’re going to be second in this room.”
Before Miller left the Honda Center, his voice hoarse and his shirt soaked in sweat, he put the game in its best perspective.
He spoke about toughness, resolve, willpower and all the things a winning coach gets to say when his team gets out of a jam and lives to play another day.
“We’ve won, we’re excited,” he said. “But our quest is to put this game behind us and play for the Final Four.”
Miller was the last man standing in the interview room. In the NCAA tournament, that’s the Land of Opportunity.