HOUSTON (AP) — A magical journey put San Diego State in its first Final Four.
A thrilling buzzer-beater by Lamont Butler landed the Aztecs one win away from a national title.
Hot early shooting Monday night helped them race to an early lead against the mighty UConn Huskies.
Then things fell apart.
For more than 11 tortured minutes in the title game, no matter what they tried, the Aztecs could not make a field goal in their 76-59 loss.
“It’s difficult to play like that,” Butler said.
Fighting against a stifling defense, they missed hook shots, had layups blocked, badly missed wide-open 3s and saw easy jump shots fall short.
The Aztecs (32-7) took shot after shot after shot — 14 in all as the clock ticked, ticked and ticked — but no matter what they tried nothing would fall.
“We were talking about it for sure,” Butler said. “And we were trying to figure out what we can do to stop the scoring drought and create advantages for ourselves. We tried but things weren’t working.”
By the time Darrion Trammell mercifully made a jump shot with about 5 ½ minutes left in the first half, the Aztecs had seen a four-point lead turn into a 26-17 hole.
A team that got here on the strength of its vaunted defense was in the end done in by an offense that went cold at the worst possible moment.
“It’s the national championship game, a lot of things had to go right on our end in order to win,” guard Matt Bradley said. “And when you’re missing shots and turning the ball over and even when you’re playing hard on defense, it’s not going to be enough. So we learned that tonight for sure.”
The Aztecs rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat Florida Atlantic in the national semifinal, with Butler’s game-winner at the buzzer marking the first time in Final Four history that a buzzer-beater took a team from trailing to a victory.
This time there would be no such heroics. They did go on a second half run to make it interesting, though.
San Diego State used a 14-4 spurt, with the first four points from Jaedon LeDee, to get within 60-55 with about five minutes to go.
But Jordan Hawkins made a 3-pointer seconds after that to start a 9-0 run that shut the door on any designs the Aztecs had on another remarkable comeback.
Though their defense had been the star of this Cinderella’s tournament run entering Monday night, their offense had done plenty to complement it.
Through their first five games in the tournament, the Aztecs shot an average of 42.48%. In the biggest game in school history Monday night, they shot a tournament-low 32% — a number significantly lowered by a 28.6% first half.
It was their second-lowest shooting percentage of the season, behind the 31.7% they shot in a 62-57 win over Utah State in the Mountain West Conference Tournament title game. Their 24 first-half points was the second-fewest they’d managed all season.
There were no tears in San Diego State’s locker room after the loss that snapped a nine-game winning streak, but rather a bunch of guys who were proud of how far they got, even if they came up short.
“We were the only ones who believed we could get here,” Trammell said. “We surpassed our expectations honestly.”
Added Keshad Johnson, who led the team with 14 points Monday night.
“I’m sure we put our school’s name on the map and I’m proud of that,” he said.