Thames leads San Diego State by N. Dakota State and into Sweet 16

SPOKANE — Xavier Thames sent San Diego State home. As in back to the sunshine of California and a spot in the Sweet 16 for the second time in school history

Whether he was dropping 3s, finessing floaters in the lane or leading the Aztecs’ suffocating defense, Thames would not let North Dakota State become this year’s version of Florida Gulf Coast.

Thames scored 30 points, and fourth-seeded San Diego State ended the run of No. 12 seed North Dakota State 63-44 on Saturday.

The Aztecs (31-4) now get to make the short drive up the interstate to Anaheim where they will face either No. 1 seed Arizona or eighth-seeded Gonzaga in the West Regional semifinals on Thursday.

Getting to Anaheim became the unspoken goal the second the brackets were released last Sunday.

“Like Coach said, it was a two-game tournament and we wanted to get two wins,” Thames said. “That’s what we did.”

Thames, who was 9 of 19 from the field, had five assists and ended the comeback hopes of the Bison with a six-point spurt late in the second half that pushed the Aztecs’ lead to 12. He finished one shy of his career-high in points.

Dwayne Polee II was the only other San Diego State player in double figures with 15, but the Aztecs didn’t need a ton of scoring with Thames carrying the load and another defensive performance that suffocated the best shooting team in the country.

The only other time San Diego State reached the round of 16 came in 2011 when they lost to Connecticut.

“It was huge doing what we did in the regular season, to earn that four seed and now have the opportunity to play where we don’t have to worry about airplanes,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said.

Kory Brown led the Bison (26-7) with 13 points, but it was the struggles of leading scorer Taylor Braun that had North Dakota State trying to play catch up. Braun missed nine straight shots during one stretch. Sometimes he was guarded by Thames. Other times it was J.J. O’Brien taking a turn on the Summit League player of the year.

The red, teary-eyed Bison weren’t ready to see this run come to an end.

“It’s only the greatest professional week of my life,” Bison coach Saul Phillips said. “I got to watch a group of guys that deserved it, who wanted it so bad and made it a priority in their life and did everything I asked them to do.”

Fisher knew the challenge of trying to fluster an offense that worked with precision all season. The prep by Fisher and his staff went beyond just watching film. Fisher reached out to contemporaries that knew about the Bison, even current Nebraska coach and former North Dakota State coach Tim Miles.

Miles was loyal to the Bison and didn’t cough up any secrets, but the defensive plan for the Aztecs to use their length worked.

Braun finished 2-of-14 shooting and just seven points. North Dakota State shot 50.9 percent for the season to lead the country, but could only make 31.9 percent against the Aztecs. Braun finished the first half 1-of-10 shooting and equally quiet was Lawrence Alexander. The guard who hit all the big shots against Oklahoma finished with three points after scoring 28 against the Sooners.

The 44 points were a season-low for the Bison, the previous low being 56 in a win over Western Illinois.

“I think it was a typical defensive game,” San Diego State’s Josh Davis said.

North Dakota State was one of three No. 12 seeds to help create another manic March by upsetting No. 5 seed Oklahoma 80-75 in overtime in the second round on Thursday. They had the players and the personality to become this year’s version of FGCU — just minus all those dunks.

Thames wasn’t going to allow that to happen. The memories were still fresh of the flight home last year after San Diego State become one of those teams FGCU dunked all over on its way to an unforgettable March run.

Thames did it all for the Aztecs in the first half. He was responsible for 23 of San Diego State’s 30 points, scoring 16 and assisting on another three baskets. He started the second half with a floater in the lane, a shot he repeated minutes later. He then found Polee on the wing for a 3 and the Aztecs lead was back to 40-30 after a quick North Dakota State spurt had trimmed the deficit to five.

That was plenty of cushion.

“That kid had a couple moves where, well, put it this way, we don’t have anybody that can simulate it in practice,” Phillips said.

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