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CHRIS DUFRESNE

San Diego State avoids upset by New Mexico State, but it's a stretch

Playing the last game at Spokane, Wash., where two No. 5 seeds had already lost, No. 4 Aztecs hold off tough Aggies challenge to win in overtime, 73-69.

March 20, 2014|Chris Dufresne
  • Dwayne Polee II of San Diego State lays up a shot in front of Sum Bhullar of New Mexico State during the Aztecs' 73-69 overtime win Thursday over the Aggies. Polee had 15 points and six rebounds off the bench for San Diego State.
Dwayne Polee II of San Diego State lays up a shot in front of Sum Bhullar of… (Steve Dykes / Getty Images )

SPOKANE, Wash. — San Diego State had, by far, the scariest time slot in Spokane. The Aztecs played the last Thursday night game on what had to seem like the longest day of the year.

Boy was it ever.

Spokane Arena, by the time the Aztecs tipped off, had been the scene of high-major carnage. The upset ghosts were already wafting in the woodwork and catacombs.

Two No. 12-seeded schools, Harvard from the East region and North Dakota State from the West, had already sent home a pair of fives — Cincinnati and Oklahoma.

The thought of Thursday becoming a gruesome triple-header must have rumbled through Steve Fisher's pregame mind as he prepared No. 4 San Diego State for No. 13 New Mexico State.

The only sure thing about the Spokane sub-regional was nothing was a sure thing. And guess what?

Although the Aztecs led by 12 points at the half and 10 late, New Mexico State rallied to send the game to overtime on Kevin Aronis' three-pointer with five seconds left.

The basket was made possible after the Aztecs turned the ball over in its own end with 15 seconds left.

San Diego State, though, recovered to win, 73-69.

Aztecs' Xavier Thames and Dwyane Polee II made key free throws in the final minute of overtime to preserve the win.

San Diego State seemed to understand this was "upset Thursday," as the Aztecs raced to an early lead with the apparent purpose of preemptively deflating the Aggies' upset hopes.

In the end, though, it was more chills and spills.

The game's winner advanced to Saturday's game against North Dakota State. The winner of that game advances to next week's West Regional semifinals at the Honda Center.

Playing like a team that didn't want to fall behind for fear of not being able to catch up, the Aztecs took off early.

But just when you thought it was safe to use ink to circle San Diego State's win on your bracket, New Mexico State went on a mini-tear to cut the lead to two.

San Diego State survived the surge, and key jumps by Winston Shepard helped build the Aztecs' lead back to 10 with four minutes left.

It still wasn't enough.

San Diego State players, after the game, probably needed ice baths.

New Mexico State is a giant, physical team with a frontcourt that features twin towers Sim Bhullar (7-foot-5) and Tshildizi Nephawe (6-10).

Bhullar is listed at 335 pounds while Nephawe is "only" 265.

Bhullar's younger brother Tanveer, who is 7-3, joined the roster this year, but luckily for the Aztecs he's not yet in the rotation.

Sim Bhullar, from Toronto, is not very mobile but is one of college basketball's most imposing figures.

He averages 10 points and eight rebounds and entered Thursday's game with 99 blocks.

San Diego State used multiple combinations to confront Bhullar. Senior Aztecs forward, Josh Davis, who is 6-8, looked like a child as he leaned his elbows into Bhullar's hips.

The Aztecs also used 6-10 Skylar Spencer, who looked as if he was about 6-5 when he guarded Bhullar.

Bhullar looked sluggish in the first half but certainly threw his weight around in the second.

He swatted a JJ O'Brien shot into the seats, had two slam dunks and even scored on a fast-break finger roll as the Aggies cut San Diego State's 12-point halftime lead to two.

New Mexico State was not intimidated by San Diego State, a top-drawer Mountain West program making its fifth straight NCAA appearance under Fisher.

"We match up well with them," junior guard Daniel Mullings, the Western Athletic Conference player of the year, said before the game. "For the people that just overlook overall 13 seeds, especially us, we're just not here for one game. We're a great team inside out. We have great bigs that are unselfish and then we also have good perimeter players."

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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