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Thames leads San Diego State past North Dakota State

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SPOKANE, Wash. — North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips struggled with his emotions after San Diego State eliminated the Bison from the NCAA Tournament on Saturday afternoon, but Phillips managed a wry smile when asked about the defensive game plan against Aztecs point guard Xavier Thames.

“It probably looked like there wasn’t one,” Phillips said after Thames poured in 30 points to lead the Aztecs to a 63-44 win at the Spokane Arena.

The Aztecs (31-4), seeded fourth in the West Regional, advance to the Sweet 16 for the second time in school history. San Diego State plays Thursday in Anaheim, Calif., against the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 1 seed Arizona (31-4) and No. 8 seed Gonzaga (29-6).

The combination of Thames’ offense and a typically suffocating defensive effort by the Aztecs overwhelmed the 12th-seeded Bison (26-7). The 44 points was a season low for North Dakota State, and the Bison shot just 31.9 percent from the field. North Dakota State started the day ranked first in NCAA Division I with 51.0 percent shooting from the field.

“We came out and played good defense on a great offensive team,” Thames said.

“Defense was the key,” Aztecs forward Dwayne Polee II said. “It is the key every night.

“It is our staple and it is going to stay our staple. We are going to ride it until the wheels fall off.”

San Diego State came into Saturday’s play ranked second in the nation with 56.6 points allowed per game. The Aztecs were eighth in defensive field-goal percentage at 38.5.

“Their length bothered us, there’s no question about that,” Phillips said. “They are an excellent defensive team.”

Thames, the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, finished one point shy of his career high. He sank nine of 19 shots, including four of nine from 3-point range, and knocked down eight of nine free throws.

“The kid was awesome,” Phillips said. “We’re a good defensive team. That kid did it to our best defensive player (Kory Brown), and he did it (against) an entire team that was looking for him.”

Thames sank all four of his 3-pointers in the first half, when he scored 16 points. He hit shots from the perimeter and by penetrating the lane all afternoon.

“We used the high ball screen a lot,” Thames said. “DP (Polee) set a few ball screens. Josh (Davis) set a lot of them. And Skylar (Spencer) set a lot.

“So I’ve got to give credit to those guys, because I was getting to the lane kind of easy making my shots. That was the game plan, just to get into the lane, try to find people or make a shot for myself.”

The Aztecs led 30-23 at intermission after holding North Dakota State without a field goal during a 15-3 run over the final six minutes of the half. San Diego State briefly let the Bison pull within five early in the second half, then gradually pulled away.

“We didn’t have it tonight,” Phillips said. “We couldn’t figure it out. We couldn’t get the mystery solved.

“But San Diego State’s done that to a lot of people. We lost to a great team.”

Brown, the only North Dakota State player with more than eight points, scored 13. Backcourt partner Taylor Braun, the Summit Conference Player of the Year, was held to seven points (he was averaging 18) on 2-for-14 shooting.

Polee, San Diego State’s sixth man, scored 15 points, grabbed six rebounds and contributed to the suffocating defensive play. Forward Josh Davis, San Diego State’s third-leading scorer in the game with six points, hauled down 13 rebounds to help the Aztecs outrebound North Dakota State 37-28.

Bison point guard Lawrence Alexander, who scored a career-high 28 points Thursday against Oklahoma, was limited to 1-for-8 shooting and three points.

The Bison’s first-ever NCAA Division I Tournament victory Thursday extended their winning streak to 10. The Aztecs, winners of two straight games and seven of eight, are headed back to the Sweet 16 for the second time in four years.

“We’re not surprised,” coach Steve Fisher said. “We think we’re good enough to play with anybody.”

NOTES: San Diego State senior PG Xavier Thames played at nearby Washington

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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NCAA News Wire

Wisconsin earns top seed after conference tournament win

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CHICAGO — The Wisconsin Badgers earned a historic NCAA top seed Sunday, but their approach going forward will be strictly business as usual.

Wisconsin (31-3) beat Michigan State 80-69 in overtime in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament title game to complete a championship sweep and were rewarded with the first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in program history.

“I’m sure it will sink in,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “What we need right now is to get these guys back (home). We have class tomorrow, some of these guys have tests, they’ve got midterms this week. So it will be business as usual for our student-athletes.”

But players like forward Frank Kaminsky, the Big Ten tournament most outstanding player, are pretty pumped up.

“It’s awesome,” Kaminsky said. “First No. 1 seed in program history. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself, but we have a lot of goals and aspirations in the NCAA Tournament. So we’re going to prepare for our first game and be ready we tip the ball up.”

No. 6 ranked Wisconsin, the league’s regular-season champion, claimed the Big Ten’s automatic NCAA berth with the overtime win at the United Center and meets No. 16 Coastal Carolina (24-9) in Friday’s West Region opener in Omaha, Neb.

The overtime outcome was the first in Big Ten tournament history.

Michigan State (23-11) is also tourney bound with a No. 7 seed in the East Region. The Spartans will face Georgia, which is the 10th seed, on Friday in Charlotte, N.C.

Ryan was initially at a loss for words after the Badgers’ dramatic come-from-behind win.

“I’m speechless and that’s hard to do,” he said. “It was the fight in this group, and to do what they did when it seemed like Michigan State couldn’t do anything wrong. I just hope we have something left in us come NCAA Tournament time.”

The Badgers rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit and back into contention late in the game. They then scored 11 unanswered points in overtime behind seven points form forward Nigel Hayes.

Hayes closed with a game-high 25 points and was 12-for-12 from the free throw line. Kaminsky had 19, guard Bronson Koenig finished with 18 while reserve forward Duje Dukan added 11.

Michigan State, making its third title game appearance in four years, was led by forward Branden Dawson and guard Denzel Valentine with 16 apiece while reserve guard Bryn Forbes had 10.

“I thought we played one of the greatest games we’ve ever played for 32, 32 and one-half minutes or 35, 36 minutes,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “And then we made a couple of mistakes and they made a couple of great shots and that’s the way the game goes.”

Wisconsin trailed 57-46 in the second half when Koenig launched a comeback with a 3-pointer and added another with 4:19 left to give the Badgers a temporary 60-59 lead.

“We were down eleven and they thought they had it in the bag,” Koenig said. “But I kept reminding my teammates that we were never going to give up.”

Guard Lourawls Nairn’s 3-pointer then put Michigan State up 62-60 as the teams exchanged leads three times and tied four times. The last in regulation came on Koenig’s two free throws for a 69-69 deadlock.

A potential game-winning shot by Dawson rolled in and out as regulation time expired.

In the first half, Michigan State outscored Wisconsin 10-5 in the final 3:25 for a 32-31 halftime lead after a half that saw with seven lead changes and five ties. The Spartans opened a 32-28 lead after a turnover by Koenig and a rebound put back by forward Marvin Clark with 25 seconds showing. But Wisconsin narrowed the deficit to 32-31 as Kaminsky hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

It was the Badger’s fifth successful shot from beyond the arc in the half. Wisconsin ended 13-of-26 (50 percent) on 3-point shooting for the game.

NOTES: Sunday’s game was tied 13 times and had 14 lead changes. … The Badgers claimed a 68-61 win in March in the long regular season meeting behind F Frank Kaminsky’s season-high 31 points. … The Badgers’ two previous Big Ten tournament titles came in wins over Illinois in 2004 and 2008. … Wisconsin’s 31 wins match an all-time

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SMU outmuscles Connecticut to take AAC title

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HARTFORD, Conn. — After a crushing omission from the NCAA Tournament last season, the 20th-ranked Southern Methodist Mustangs didn’t have any worries during this year’s Selection Show. They are dancing for the first time since 1993.

SMU’s deep and talented frontcourt frustrated the Connecticut Huskies on both ends of the floor, paving the way for the team’s first conference title in 27 years with a 62-54 win in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Sunday.

SMU earned a No. 6 seed and will face No. 11 UCLA in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Charlotte, N.C.

“This is big for all of us,” said senior guard Ryan Manuel, “not just the seniors but it’s as big for SMU as a school, as a basketball program. When coach (Larry) Brown got here, he wanted us to put it back on the map, and I think we made great strides in that.”

UConn (20-14), the defending national champion, came into the AAC tournament needing four wins in four days just to return to the NCAA Tournament. After falling just short of their goal, the Huskies are headed to the National Invitation Tournament.

“It’s postseason play,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “If it’s NIT or NCAA, they’re going to learn from it and they’re going to come back better from it. I’m still coaching them the way I coach them, they’re still going to play the way they’re going to play.”

SMU (27-6) was expected to receive an at-large bid if it lost Sunday, but the victory guaranteed it a spot in the NCAA Tournament field after being one of the final teams left out last season.

“Last year at this time was about as disappointing as it could get,” Brown said. “Fortunately we’ve got another opportunity, and didn’t have to get anybody to decide whether we’re worthy or not.”

As it had all weekend long, it was SMU’s frontcourt that anchored the win.

The conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, Markus Kennedy, capped off a strong weekend by leading his team with 14 points, one of four Mustangs players in double figures. He earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player for his efforts. The 6-foot-10 junior and his fellow forwards helped SMU to a 43-30 advantage on the glass, with sophomore Sterling Brown pulling in 12 rebounds to lead the team.

Sophomore guard Rodney Purvis had 29 points and was the only UConn player in double figures in scoring.

“I was trying to be aggressive and take what the defense gave me,” he said.

For a while, it appeared this game would not be close. The SMU zone defense that Connecticut had carved up for 81 points just two weeks prior locked things down this time around, and the Mustangs took a 33-19 advantage into halftime by holding UConn to 5-of-24 shooting (20.8 percent) from the floor over the opening 20 minutes.

The Huskies, who made more than 53 percent from the floor and knocked down nine 3-pointers in that win, were just 2 of 13 from beyond the arc in that first half.

Usual leading scorer Ryan Boatright would manage just seven points on 1-of-12 shooting for the game.

“I’m just disappointed in my play,” he said. “I missed a lot of shots that should be easy knock-down shots for me. I didn’t show up and be the player I know I can be, I can be better than that. But my teammates fought, they played a tremendous game.”

UConn made it a game in the second half by doing similar things on the defensive end, thanks in large part to the presence of sophomore Amida Brimah. The 7-foot center, limited to just four first-half minutes because of foul trouble, played the entire second half, blocking seven shots during that time and altering numerous others.

The Huskies were able to get within five points with just over three minutes to play, but the Mustangs would hold on.

“He’s a shot blocker, so it made it a little difficult,” Manuel said about the difference Brimah made in the second half. “UConn, they have a tradition of coming back, and we knew they weren’t going to go down with a fight, so for us to stand there as a team and get the

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Alabama fires head coach Grant

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Alabama fired head basketball coach Anthony Grant on Sunday after six seasons.

The Crimson Tide struggled over the final two months of the season, finishing 18-14 and tied for eighth in the Southeastern Conference.

Grant, 48, won at least 20 games three times and made an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012. His Alabama teams went 117-85, including two NIT appearances (2011 and 2013). He came to Alabama from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he went 76-25 and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.

“This has been a very difficult decision, as I have the highest respect for Anthony as a coach, as a molder of young men, and as a person,” Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said in a statement. “Anthony is a man of impeccable character who has been an excellent representative of our program. He has made tremendous contributions to our program and we always will be grateful for his efforts. Anthony, his wife Chris, and their children have been tremendous assets to our University and our community.

“In this business we are ultimately judged by wins and losses on the court and, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t made satisfactory progress in that area.”

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