Dutcher's Aztecs face UConn in the Sweet 16 in a rematch of their painful national title game loss

Tue, Mar 26, 2024

Dutcher's Aztecs face UConn in the Sweet 16 in a rematch of their painful national title game loss

SAN DIEGO (AP) - The UConn Huskies pretty much wrecked every team they faced in the NCAA Tournament on the way to last year's championship and the first two games this March Madness look awfully familiar.

Up next is a wrinkle: A rematch with a San Diego State team that was outclassed in the title game a year ago and remembers it.

The Aztecs (26-10) think this year's outcome can be different, but know how tough that will be, especially with Thursday night's East Region semifinal game being played in Boston, about an 85-mile drive for fans of the No. 1-seeded Huskies (34-3).

"We're excited to get off to Boston," coach Brian Dutcher said Tuesday morning before the Aztecs headed to the airport for their cross-country flight. "The good news is, we're not playing the Celtics. The bad news is, we're playing UConn.

"We're up for the challenge. It's like playing a road game. I'm sure it's going to be packed with UConn fans. Our Aztec faithful will travel as best they can. But we're ready for the challenge and we're looking forward to it, and try to come out of there with a couple of victories," Dutcher said.

A year ago, the Aztecs went from the ecstasy of Lamont Butler's buzzer-beating jumper against FAU in a national semifinal game - one of the most thrilling moments in San Diego sports history - to the pain of a 76-59 loss to UConn in the national championship game. The Huskies built a double-digit lead in the first half before the Aztecs cut the lead to five points with about five minutes to go, only to watch the Huskies pull away again.

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"A lot of new pieces on both teams, which will make it interesting. Last year we had it to five points with about five minutes to go and then they spurted to the final margin," Dutcher said. "If we can keep it close and give ourselves an opportunity to win the game at the end, I like our chances."

Now they're in the Sweet 16 in consecutive years for the first time, with an unenviable assignment.

"We know we've got to go through them again to get to where we want to be so we can't wait," Butler said.

Last year the Aztecs were a No. 5 seed and beat 12th-seeded College of Charleston in the first round and 13th-seeded Furman in the second round before upsetting No. 1 seed Alabama in the Sweet 16.

This year they're on the same path, at least heading into the fourth Sweet 16 in program history. They beat 12th-seeded UAB in the first round and then routed 13th-seeded Yale in the second round in arguably their best game of the season.

It's just that UConn has won its first two tourney games by an average of 28 points.

"We know we can do it. We did it last year and I think we can do it again," Butler said about upsetting a No. 1 seed. "We've got the right pieces. We've just got to lock in and follow the game plan and we can go out there and win."

UConn lost Adama Sanogo, Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson Jr. to the NBA from last year's championship team. But this year's team is a balanced and focused group and has looked even more dominant as it attempts to become the first program to repeat as NCAA champion since Florida in 2007.

The Huskies are led by guard Tristen Newton and big man Donovan Clingan, who stands 7 foot 2 and weighs 280 pounds.

"I still feel like they're a little bit of a different team from last year," said SDSU big man Jaedon LeDee, a third-team All-American who's used to getting pounded on inside. "We watched some film on them. They get in transition really well so we've got to get back in transition. They play physical. They're a good team, we're a good team, so we've got to go out there and play."

The Aztecs made 13 of 27 3-pointers in their 85-57 win against Yale and might have to be that good again against UConn.

The Huskies have depth behind Clingan.

"It's two big men. That's the problem," Dutcher said. "You get the first one in foul trouble, they've got another one just as good coming off the bench. They're dynamic athletically, dunk everything around the rim, block shots, change the game defensively. So we're going to have to pay attention, not just trying to throw shots up there, but throw good shots up there."


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