San Diego State will try to make itself at home in Anaheim

The second-seeded Aztecs face third-seeded Connecticut on Thursday in a West Regional game at Honda Center.

March 20, 2011|By Baxter Holmes
  • San Diego State teammates LaBradford Franklin, left, and D.J. Gay celebrate after defeating Temple, 71-64, in double overtime on Saturday to advance to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.
San Diego State teammates LaBradford Franklin, left, and D.J. Gay celebrate… (Harry How / Getty Images )

San Diego State returns to its new home an hour and a half away from home this week for the NCAA men's basketball West Regional.

And there at Honda Center, waiting to greet the team that before this season hadn't won a game in the NCAA tournament, are three of the tournament's bluest blue bloods.

Duke. Arizona. Connecticut.

Among them, there are 87 NCAA appearances and seven national titles.

San Diego State has six appearances all-time but had not won a game until it beat 15th-seeded Northern Colorado, 68-50, on Thursday.

But as California's last team standing — with UCLA, USC and UC Santa Barbara all gone — the second-seeded Aztecs (34-2) can expect, or perhaps only hope for, a fan-friendly environment for their regional semifinal game Thursday against third-seeded Connecticut (28-9).

The Aztecs, who are two victories from reaching the Final Four in Houston, pulled off a 71-64 double-overtime win over seventh-seeded Temple on Saturday in Tucson, which Kawhi Leonard helped secure with a late steal and slam.

Third-seeded Connecticut (27-9) is led by Kemba Walker, a junior point guard who carried the Huskies through the Big East Conference tournament, scoring 130 points in five games, a tournament record.

And his game-winning, step-back jumper as time expired against Pittsburgh was clutch enough to draw praise from Kobe Bryant.

There was concern in some quarters that Walker and the Huskies might be out of steam after their long run in the Big East tournament. But Walker, who is averaging 25.5 points, 8.5 assists and seven rebounds in the NCAA tournament, and his teammates have not shown signs of slowing.

There is a bit of pressure on the Huskies, though, because they are one of only two Big East teams still in the tournament. The conference had sent an NCAA-record 11 teams into the competition.

The winner of the San Diego State-Connecticut game will face the winner of the other regional final between defending national champion Duke and Pacific 10 Conference regular-season champion Arizona.

And that game could come down to a toe.

Duke's standout freshman Kyrie Irving sat out three and a half months and 26 games because of a right foot injury, but he returned in the Blue Devils' first-round game against Hampton and scored 14 points in 20 minutes.

And in 21 minutes against eighth-seeded Michigan on Sunday, Irving scored 11 points, including the game's biggest shot, a short floater with 32 seconds left to ice the top-seeded Blue Devils' 73-71 win.

"For him to be put in that position and make that shot, that's a heck of a thing for that kid," said Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who picked up his 900th win. "We wouldn't be going forward if he didn't play today."

Irving was Duke's leading scorer (17.4 points per game) before injuring his toe against Butler on Dec. 4.

For Krzyzewski to earn three more wins and pass Bob Knight's record for the most in Division I, Duke (32-4) needs Irving at his best, especially against fifth-seeded Arizona (29-7).

The Wildcats returned to the tournament this season after its 25-year streak of consecutive NCAA appearances ended last season, a streak second to North Carolina's 27-year run.

Derrick Williams, the Pac-10 player of the year, has kept the Wildcats alive with two game-saving plays, one each against Memphis and Texas.

The sophomore forward's block with two seconds left against 12th-seeded Memphis in the first round preserved Arizona's 77-75 victory.

And on Sunday, Williams finished off an old-fashioned three-point play with less than 10 seconds left to finish off fourth-seeded Texas, 70-69.

"I wasn't surprised by the block against Memphis," Williams said. "I am a little surprised by the shot I made today."

That shot finalized the foursome that's on its way to Anaheim.

San Diego State, however, isn't playing far from home, which should count for something.

Maybe just not points.

Los Angeles Times Articles