Column: Tenacity—and not the bad reputation that angered Charles Barkley—gives SDSU a win, Final Four spot

April is coming and the state of San Diego is still playing basketball?

Are we supposed to think the Aztecs will play in the Final Four on Saturday, April Fool’s Day?

The… Last… Four?

It’s all true — as on target as free-throw 5-foot-10 Darrion Trammell sank 1.2 seconds from time in Louisville on Sunday to secure the 57-56 win over Creighton in the NCAA Tournament South Regional Final .

Next Saturday, while the Padres await their third game in 2023, San Diego State will play an NCAA tournament semifinal game against Florida Athletic University in Houston, meaning the art of the possible is nine basketball players — none of them one NBA First Round Draft Candidate – Wearing black and red.

At home, the San Diegos paced and pleaded on a beautiful Sunday afternoon that would normally have sent them outside.

Creighton looked mighty tough, especially in the first half. Led by an extra-large center who was freed by his shooting threats, the Blue Jays proved more fearsome than top-seeded Alabama in Friday’s SDSU big surprise win on the same pitch.

Thirteen minutes before the end, the deficit was seven points.

State thought they had better stamina. Would it show up?

It did, the Aztecs rushing forward a tiny point in seven minutes.

What happened on the track is what I will remember most from the game that sent San Diego State into the Final Four.

SDSU’s offense took the co-pilot’s chair alongside the team’s truly great defense (Charles Barkley’s words) and drove home the win.

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Buckets from four different players each broke a tie within about four minutes before Trammell made the most clutch free throw in school history.

San Diego geography teachers could come up with a fun lesson plan that matches former hometowns or countries with those four Aztec shotgun makers who, in recent years, have been drawn to the basketing program pioneered by resettled Midwestern coaches Steve Fisher and Dutcher, was built.

The first game-changing shot was a rebound-and-putback by Keshad Johson, who grew up in Oakland. Riverside’s own Lamont Butler stepped up to make a 15-foot jumper.

Aguek Arop, who posted himself and scored two goals, gave State a 54-50 lead. He grew up in Omaha, home of Creighton. Early in his life, Arop made his way from war-ravaged South Sudan through a destitute refugee camp in Egypt and on to Houston after his family was granted political asylum.

Best of all was Adam Seiko’s deft bounce pass to Nathan Mensah – Angeleno guard at Ghana-born center after the scrappy Creighton responded again.

Mensah recalled the left punch from former Aztec great man and NBA grad Michael Cage, hitting the 14-footer.

As surely as the folks in Nebraska grow corn, Creighton fans won’t remember Sunday’s Aztec game.

You can bitch for years about the whistle that sent Trammell to the line. A Creighton defender had a hand on Trammell’s hip as he rose to take a shot, prompting the foul call.

Barkley, NBA Hall of Famer and Hoops Analyst Deluxe, said the whistle upset him.

“I hate it when a referee decides the game,” he said.

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Both Barkley and CBS colleague Jay Wright, the former Villanova coach/national titleholder, said a similar contact was not whistled amid stiff competition.

Therefore, they argued, a whistle was unwarranted.

Other basketball pundits argued with equal conviction that a foul actually happened, so it had to be called.

“It was the right decision, it was the right decision,” said former NBA forward Clark Kellogg. “A guy in the air, it doesn’t take that much contact to create a foul.” Ex-NBA point guard Kenny Smith said it affected Trammell’s hand on his hip.

Old San Diegans, whose hearts are covered in emotional sports scars, would be well equipped to feel sorry for Creighton’s fans. If they were so inclined.

Call it a 50-50 decision, but the prevailing truth is that San Diego State deserved the win.

In a game of attrition, the distribution of workload, physical maturity, and collective experience of the Aztecs were crucial.

Butler is a strong guy. Not only did the junior guard defend for long stretches, he was the only player from either side to sink a 3-pointer in the second half. Still bouncy, he rose high for the jumper that broke a 48-48 tie.

Arop, who turns 24 next month, had enough power to run two buckets in four minutes.

Two weeks before his 25th birthday, Mensah blocked three shots and got the better of 7-foot-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner and other attackers.

The Aztecs defended Creighton far better than the previous two opponents, allowing 85 and 86 points. Her offense unlocked Creighton’s D when it mattered most. Trammell had yet to take the free throw, which grew more and more powerful as he missed the first.

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If the Aztecs play Houston on Saturday, it’s because that’s where they belong.

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