SPOKANE, Wash. – The Bison knew. Everyone knew.
It was no secret that San Diego State, a team capable of brilliant defense but possessing so little offense, featured only one effective scorer. Slow senior guard Xavier Thames, read the book on the Aztecs, and you would almost surely defeat them.
But knowing and doing are two different things, as 13th-seeded North Dakota State discovered Saturday at Spokane Arena. Thames scored 30 points and had five assists – he had a hand in 87 percent of the Aztecs' total points – as San Diego State advanced to the Sweet 16 of the West Region with a 63-44 victory.
"The way he was going, we didn't have to do too much else on offense but get him the ball," said Aztecs forward J.J. O'Brien of Thames. "Nothing really surprise me about him, but the way he was scoring off those high ball screens tonight, well, he couldn't be stopped ... He's had a lot of good games but this one might be at the top because it came in the NCAA tournament with the season on the line."
After falling in the Round of 32 to the phenomenon that was Florida Gulf Coast last year, the Aztecs avoided being victimized by another high-seeded, mid-major darling. They stifled the Bison’s typically efficient offense, holding them to 31.9 percent shooting, nearly 20 percentage points below their season average. Guard Taylor Braun, North Dakota State’s leading scorer, made only 2-of-14 shots.
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North Dakota State’s low-post scoring, seemingly the perfect foil for the Aztecs defense, was slowed by a bevy of long, athletic frontcourt defenders. SDSU’s four starting forwards – Skylar Spencer, Winston Shepard, J.J. O’Brien and Josh Davis – combined for only 13 points, but their hounding of North Dakota State’s Marshall Bjorklund and TrayVonn Wright (12 points combined) prevented the easy baskets that anchored the Bison’s offense all season.
Combined with Thames’ shot making and some timely contributions from junior forward Dwayne Polee II (15 points, the only other Aztec in double figures), it was more than enough for San Diego State to advance.
Thames’ brilliance was consistent from the jump, but with 6:30 remaining, after a layup by Bjorkland trimmed the Aztecs lead to 49-42, Thames sandwiched a layup of his own with two difficult pull-up jumpers that put the lead at 12 and effectively ended the game.
San Diego State will face either Arizona or Gonzaga next week in Anaheim, Calif., a short drive from its campus. It is the Aztecs second trip to the Sweet 16 in four years. They lost in 2011 to Connecticut.
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