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Aztecs handle, stop Bison: San Diego State puts on defensive pressure to beat North Dakota State

Photo by Kirby Lee / USA TODAY San Diego State guard Xavier Thames, left, shoots against North Dakota State defenders in the second half during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament on Saturday at Veterans Memorial Arena. The Aztecs defeated the Bison 63-44.

SPOKANE, Wash. — The players from North Dakota State were issued new lime green Nike basketball shoes for the NCAA tournament. None of them turned into slippers on Saturday night.

A stirring NCAA tournament run that started with an upset of Oklahoma on Thursday ended on Saturday with a thud. And a clang. And a bonk.

Those were the sounds of Bison shots on the rim, and most of them didn’t go in. San Diego State put the defensive clamps on the Bison to take a 63-44 win in a third-round game at Spokane Arena.

NDSU, which leads the nation in field-goal percentage, didn’t look the part against the Aztecs. The Bison came in shooting 51 percent, but were held to 15 of 47 for 32 percent.

“Defense was the key. It is the key every night,” said SDSU forward Dwayne Polee. “It is our staple, and it is going to stay our staple. We are going to ride it until the wheels fall off.”

The Aztecs’ wheels head to Anaheim, Calif., for the Sweet 16. They are 31-4. NDSU ended its historic season 26-7.

“We got one victory — program history,” said guard Lawrence Alexander. “But our ultimate goal was to get to the Sweet 16, and it kind of fell short.”

It was a night when NDSU leading scorer Taylor Braun struggled, going 2 of 14 from the field. It was an off night shooting for Alexander, who torched Oklahoma for a career-high 28 points on Thursday.

“They were just really long,” Alexander said. “Really long and athletic. Going into the game, we knew that but actually being out there and playing against them are two different things.”

Instead, it was SDSU guard Xavier Thames who was the point guard star of the show. He maneuvered in and around the Bison defense for 30 points, one short of his season high against Utah State.

It wasn’t the much-hyped pressing ability of San Diego State that bothered the Bison — NDSU had just two turnovers in the first 20 minutes and only six overall. But the Bison didn’t get many open looks in their half-court offense, either.

“San Diego State’s done that to a lot of people,” said Bison head coach Saul Phillips. “We lost to a great team. Their length bothered us. There’s no question about that. They are an excellent defensive team.”

Only sophomore Kory Brown reached double figures with 13 points. He was also a player the Aztecs laid off of, instead concentrating on Braun and center Marshall Bjorklund.

“They were pretty physical down there,” Bjorklund said. “They had some guys with some length, but I guess there were a few times they pushed me out a little ways from the basket, but it seemed like for most of our guys we were getting some looks on the block, especially in the second half.”

Bjorklund, who led the country in field-goal percentage, was just 3 of 7 from the field and finished with eight points.

“No. 42 was a key for us,” said SDSU head coach Steve Fisher, referencing Bjorklund’s jersey. “Don’t let him get by you. NDSU is a good team. This is a team that if you play them in the gym shirts and skins, they could be any team in the country. I know they could be Wisconsin because that is where Saul is from.”

Each team traded 7-0 runs with the second one by San Diego State making the difference. The first by NDSU gave it a 20-15 lead with 6:07 left in the half. The Aztecs responded with their seven straight to surge into halftime with the lead — one it would never get up.

That was key in keeping an underdog team with the crowd on its side at bay.

“We had the lead last game against New Mexico State and came out flat in the second half,” Thames said. “So I just reminded the guys before the second half not to come out flat again.”

It didn’t help the Bison that TrayVonn Wright, the team’s most consistent postseason scorer, sat for 14 minutes of the first half with two fouls. He played just 20 minutes and finished with four points.

“We just weren’t able to score tonight,” Wright said. “We didn’t shoot the ball very well. We usually shoot 50 percent, and we were well under that today.”

Leading 51-43, the Aztecs put it away down the stretch scoring eight straight while the Bison went scoreless from 5:44 left until Dexter Werner’s free throw with 29 seconds left.

By then, NDSU’s tournament balloon had popped.

“At this moment, all I can think about is this game and my seniors,” said Alexander, a junior. “Once the feeling goes away, then all of the success and things we did will probably hit me. I’ll probably feel better about myself than I do right now. Right now I can’t think about anything else besides this game and my seniors.”

NDSU (26-7): Wright 2-4 0-0 4, Bjorklund 3-7 2-3 8, Alexander 1-8 0-0 3, Brown 4-7 4-4 13, Braun 2-14 3-4 7, Felt 0-0 0-1 0, Dupree 1-1 0-1 2, Kading 1-4 2-2 4, Aaberg 1-2 0-0 2, Werner 0-0 1-2 1. Totals: 15-47 12-17 44.

SDSU (31-4): Spencer 0-1 0-0 0, Shepard 1-6 1-2 3,O’Brien 1-2 2-2 4, Davis 2-4 2-5 6, Thames 9-19 8-9 30, Polee II 4-8 5-6 15, Quinn 2-3 0-0 5, Shrigley 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 19-44 18-24 63.

Halftime: SDSU 30, NDSU 23. Total fouls: NDSU 17, SDSU 16. Fouled out: none. Rebounds: NDSU 27 (Braun, Wright 5); SDSU 38 (Davis 13). 3-point goals: NDSU 2-11 (Wright 0-1, Alexander 1-5, Brown 1-1, Braun 0-3, Kading 0-1); SDSU 7-16 (Shepard 0-1, Thames 4-9, Polee II 2-4, Quinn 1-1, Shrigley 0-1). Assists: NDSU 5 (Alexander 2); SDSU 8 (Thames 5). Turnovers: NDSU 6 (Bjorklund 3); SDSU 6 (Thames 3).

Jeff Kolpack
Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.