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
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