SALT LAKE CITY — San Diego State expended every ounce of energy and emotion in its second-half comeback attempt against the University of Nevada Las Vegas on Thursday night at the Special Events Center.
Ihe Aztecs fell short, 85-80 in their first NCAA appearance since 1976.
Suddenly, a remarkable season was over for a team that nobody figured would go 23-8, win the Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship and qualify for the NCAA tournament.
When the players reached the privacy of their locker room, they let it all out.
"This is it for me," senior forward Michael Kennedy said repeatedly. "We started an NCAA tradition while we were here, and I believe they will take it farther next year."
Senior center Leonard Allen, who scored a game-high 23 points and had 9 rebounds, mumbled that it was difficult to even talk.
Immediately after the game ended, Allen was whisked away to a press interview room to face hordes of reporters wanting to know about every last dunk and blocked shot.
After returning from the interview room, Allen sat beside his locker with his head in his hands.
"We accomplished a lot," he said, "and did things people didn't think we'd do. But it would be better if the season was a couple of games longer."
The collegiate careers of the seniors had come to an end, and the final 10 minutes against UNLV seemed a lot more real than the memory of beating Texas El Paso at El Paso five days ago.
On Thursday night, SDSU came back from a 13-point, first-half deficit and 10-point halftime deficit, to tie the game at 56-56 on an Allen dunk with 9:49 to play.
"After that dunk, I really thought we would win," said guard Creon Dorsey, while going around the locker room thanking everyone for being part of a fine season.
Dorsey, the man who was the sparkplug and spirit of the Aztecs throughout the season, was shaking the hands of his teammates, and taking deep breaths and shaking his head.
"We made mistakes down the stretch," Dorsey said, "and we broke down in spurts and they capitalized."
SDSU pulled to within one point when Bobby Owens scored on a breakaway layup to make it 69-68 with 4:56 to play. The Aztecs never got closer than three points the rest of the way.
"Mentally, it breaks you down when you have to keep coming back," Kennedy said. "You have to get strong and stay strong."
The Aztecs were strong, but they weren't quite strong enough against the powerful ninth-ranked Rebels.
"We were fighting to get back in the game the whole way," junior forward John Martens said. "We just never got over the hump."
The experienced Rebels got the win, and the Aztecs got experience.
"We got an insight into what it is to play in the tournament," guard Anthony Watson said. "There is a lot of pressure to do your best, and you realize nothing else will do. You learn that it's do or die."
The Aztecs also learned what it's like to play against a team whose ninth man is as talented an athlete as the starter he replaced.
"We took it to them," Martens said, "but they had a lot of contribution off the bench. They all run really well, and they have a lot of big guys who use their weight inside."
Sophomore center Gerald Murray, who thrives on contact, said the Rebels were the most physical team the Aztecs played all season.
"They let us play," Murray said, "but we weren't blocking out that good. And we just didn't play smart when we came back."
Murray was both disappointed and excited. Then again, he has the luxury of playing two more seasons.
"It was a pleasure playing in the NCAA tournament," he said.
As the players were filing through the tunnel into the cold evening in Salt Lake City, Aztec Coach Smokey Gaines echoed Murray's sentiments.
Smiling with pride and frowning with disappointment, Gaines was proud of his team's performance.
"I thought we played well," Gaines said, "and we have nothing to be ashamed of. We committed some turnovers, and missed some free throws, but they made some shots we wanted them to take."
Maybe he was talking about Anthony Jones' 22-footer from the left corner that made it 77-74 with 2:26 to play. Or the twisting reverse layup by Jones that made it 79-74 with 1:09 to play.
"They knew what it's all about," Dorsey said. "But I kept thinking the game and the season wouldn't be over until I saw the two zeroes on the clock."