ANAHEIM, Calif. — It was the kind of NCAA tournament game where more than half of its moments were shining ones.
The moment where Aaron Gordon took a skip pass high for a monstrous one-handed alley-oop slam and the moment where Dwayne Polee II wrestled the ball away from Kaleb Tarczewski and ran it back for a dunk that gave San Diego State a five-point lead that felt more like 15.
It was a game that you never wanted to end but when it finally did, it was the top-seeded Wildcats that prevailed over a team of underdogs that played more like the big dogs.
And that moment was a painful one to face for No. 4 seed San Diego State.
"I told (the team) that anybody that watched the game live or on TV or listened to the radio had to see a team with character, with pride, with toughness who could play," said SDSU head coach Steve Fisher. "Who put themselves in a position to win, but couldn’t quite get it done.
"That is the hard part."
Arizona put together two minutes of near-brilliant basketball in order to defeat the Aztecs 70-64, Thursday night at the Honda Center in the South Regional semifinal of the NCAA tournament. It’s the Wildcats’ second Elite Eight appearance in the last four seasons and 10th in program history.
Sweet 16 notes: Aaron Gordon’s dunk; Business as usual for Badgers
"We’ve played 37 games now. That was the most physical, hard-fought game of the season for us," said Arizona head coach Sean Miller. "It took tremendous toughness and resolve."
Arizona’s leading scorer Nick Johnson was rendered a non-factor throughout most of the game thanks to the defense of Polee. All of his 15 points came in the second half while Polee had his way with Johnson and the Arizona defense in the first half, scoring 10 of his 13 points.
But Johnson hit a 3 with just 1:52 left to put Arizona up by eight. Suddenly, what he did in the first half was meaningless as he gave the Wildcats their largest lead and effectively pushed the game just a little too far out of reach of the Aztecs.
It was a late game momentum surge where Arizona began to exert its will. Gordon, who had carried the team throughout the first half, did all the little things with the tipped balls and the offensive rebounding while his teammates forced key turnovers and forced the Aztecs to catch up with them in transition. The Wildcats used a 9-2 run in two minutes to go up eight.
The Aztecs weren’t ready to give up, and Polee and Thames each hit threes in the final 90 seconds. But just like the first time it played the Wildcats this season, foul shots were made and San Diego State, the burgeoning program many had only pegged as Fisher’s reclamation project before they became players on the national scene, would make the drive back down the 5 freeway.
"We’ve been five straight years to the tournament, we’re newbies to this stage," Fisher said. "We’ve only been to the Sweet 16 twice and we want more."
"Just look at this locker room and see nobody is happy," said sophomore forward Winston Shepard. "We really had a good enough team to go deep into the tournament."
The Final Four didn’t happen this year, but the Aztecs aren’t going anywhere. Fisher has built this program into more than a Mountain West contender, he’s built them into a national contender. After a game like Thursday’s, there won’t be many to disagree.
"I do think that now we have a perception nationally," Fisher said. " ‘Hey, they’re good. They’re supposed to be good.’ I like that. Our players like that. I think a good measure of expectations is now on our program.â