SAN DIEGO — Maybe Jim Brandenburg expected more. Maybe he hoped that somehow his struggling San Diego State basketball team could pull out its most surprising victory in years and present him with a real welcome to San Diego.
Nothing would have done so like a victory against the Wyoming Cowboys, the team Brandenburg left in March after leading it to the final 16 of the NCAA tournament.
The Aztecs fell just one point short of that goal Thursday night, losing, 57-56, before a crowd of 8,649 at the San Diego Sports Arena. Although the loss might have left Brandenburg subdued on the outside, inside he had to take comfort.
This had clearly been an emotional game for an emotional coach, a game that he had waited months for and that would leave an impression either way.
"For him to beat us," Wyoming Coach Benny Dees said before the game, "would make his season."
Instead, he had to settle for knowing that the Aztecs came within a failed attempt to get off a last-second shot.
"We had a chance," Brandenburg said. "You take a look at it, and our guys are definitely to be commended. They played hard and made a heck of a comeback."
The loss was the fourth in a row for SDSU (7-11 overall) and the sixth in seven Western Athletic Conference games. Wyoming (14-4, 3-4) won for the first time in four conference road games.
The postgame scene was as tense as the game itself.
Eric Leckner, the Cowboys' senior center, left the court shouting in the direction of the SDSU bench. Only one of Brandenburg's former players, guard Reggie Fox, came over to shake his hand when it was over.
Brandenburg stood near his bench for a few moments before exiting to the locker room.
He had done his best to break any pregame tension, giving a nod to Wyoming's Fennis Dembo and a wink to Leckner during the pregame introductions. But the two players barely acknowledged the gesture.
The normally animated Dembo just gave his old coach a quick glance and appeared as if he would be all businesslike this night. It was as if the Cowboys' slide of the past few weeks had humbled the player who willing accepts a designation of one of college basketball's biggest showmen.
"Coach Brandenburg had his guys ready," Dembo said, "but man, we didn't play well. We came out with a lack-luster 'W' "
The Cowboys, like Dembo, started slowly, but once the game got going and the national television cameras focused in, the show was on.
The Aztecs stayed within two points for the first three minutes before Wyoming ran off 10 consecutive points to take a 16-4 lead with 13:53 left in the half. Dembo, who finished with a game-high 18 points, had six during the run.
His cool pregame demeanor gave way to waved fists, pointed fingers and icy stares into a taunting section of SDSU students.
The Aztecs went 5:36 without a point until center Mitch McMullen scored on a reverse layup with 11:16 to play in the half. SDSU twice drew within six points, the last time at 23-17 on a one-and-one by guard Bryan Williams with 5:50 remaining before halftime, but could get no closer. The Cowboys outscored the Aztecs, 14-9, the rest of the half to take a 37-26 lead.
Dembo finished the half with 11 points, and guard Robyn Davis, making only his fourth start of the season, had 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting.
The Aztecs had 7 first-half field goals to the Cowboys' 16, but outscored them, 11-5, at the line. The Cowboys shot 64.0% from the field to the Aztecs' 36.8% in the first half.
The Aztecs best chance to make a run came when Leckner was charged with his fourth personal foul with 17:13 to play and left the game. But Rodney Hawkins missed two free throws that could have brought the Aztecs to within six points, and Dembo scored on a followup rebound.
The Aztecs never were able to take full advantage of Leckner's absence, but neither were the Cowboys able to put SDSU cleanly away.
Wyoming never led by more than 11 in the second half as the Aztecs refused to fold. And when guard Ty Walker made two free throws with 6:59 left, suddenly the Aztecs were within six points (50-44). They closed it to three (50-47) on McMullen's three-point play at 5:38 and could have drawn to within one with 5:05 left, but Hawkins again missed two free throws.
Not until Williams made two free throws with 1:47 to play did the Aztecs get their first tie at 55-55. Dembo made a 17-foot jump shot in front of the free-throw line to put the Cowboys up for good, 57-55, with 1:03 to play.
McMullen had a chance to tie the game but made only the first of two free throws with 17 seconds left. In the scramble for the rebound, a tie-up was called, and Wyoming got the ball on the alternate-possession rule.
Then things got crazy.
Leckner was fouled and went the line for a one-and-one with seven seconds left. He missed, but Johnson was called for a lane violation, and Leckner shot again. He missed a second time, but Tony Ross was called for a lane violation, giving Leckner a third try. He missed again, and this time Williams rebounded.
Williams took off up the floor, dribbling through a double-team and ending up deep on the left baseline, but he could not release his 16-foot jump shot until just after the buzzer sounded. It bounced harmlessly off the rim, ending the game.