On paper the task was simple: win four games in four days.
But on paper everything is easy.
Sophomore guard Jeremy Hemsley’s face said it all after the game, as he roared at the sound of the final buzzer knowing his team survived to fight another day, but were all too close to elimination in the first round.
The Aztecs trailed nearly the entire first half and faced a double-digit deficit for the first seven minutes of the second half, but used a 46-15 run from the 17:27 mark in the second period, including overtime, to advance to the next round.
“This was a game where not many people, including our own fans, thought we had a chance at halftime,” head coach Steve Fisher said. “And anything we could do to hurt ourselves we did. And they were brimming with confidence. And we found a way to muster the fight that you have to have to have a chance.”
With only 14 points in their pocket from the first half, the Aztecs had to rely on their superior depth to eke out the win. Eight players scored for SDSU in the latter half, including six from senior guard D’Erryl Williams.
“I just try to go in the game and observe the floor, make the right play,” Williams said. “If it's me taking a layup or just me hitting somebody for a wide open three, a dunk, whatever I can do to help the team win I'm going to do, and that's been me from day one.”
Despite only taking four shots, the Sacramento, California native appeared to have received the green light from Fisher, as he fought to keep his final season on the Mesa alive. Whether it was feeding teammates, driving in the lane or hitting free throws, Williams never stopped.
His effort wasn’t lost on Fisher, who subbed him in at the 6:23 mark and didn’t check out until 1:04 left in overtime, when he was banged up diving for a loose ball.
“(D’Erryl) cares more about winning than he cares about himself and stats,” Fisher said. “He gave us a huge lift tonight … and he was the ringleader on making plays for us.”
Similarly, the SDSU contingent in the Thomas & Mack Center rewarded the senior’s play, as they chanted MVP when he was subbed out in overtime.
While the Aztecs received an adrenaline shot from Williams down the stretch, the game was still in question in the waning minutes of regulation.
SDSU didn’t score in the final three minutes and could only watch as senior forward Christian Jones went to the line twice with the Runnin’ Rebels down by two. He split both free throws on both occasions, including his attempts with only 10 seconds left and his team down one.
The overtime period was a five-minute venting session for the Aztecs to release their game-long frustration, especially for junior guard Trey Kell, who scored seven of his 13 points in the extra period.
Junior forward Malik Pope ended his night with a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds, including two blocks and two assists.
Regardless of the win, the game was a microcosm of SDSU’s season: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the same game, they appeared to be folding up shop with shoulders slumped and heads down, they drained threes and lockeddown the opposing team with only a halftime break to transform.
“We haven't played great this year, you know that,” Fisher said. “And we've had games like this, where we've had moments we played okay and moments where we've looked God awful. And we did just enough to get ourselves a victory today. And at this stage of what we do, that's most important, because we're playing.”
SDSU will tipoff tomorrow against the third-seeded Broncos at 8:30 p.m. Thursday night in the quarterfinals.