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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Aztecs nearly stumble during historic tourney run


TUCSON, Ariz. -- Just keep thinking about the prize, San Diego State: Sweet 16. Nothing else, you saw, heard or experienced Saturday mattered.

Thank goodness. Keep remembering that you're into the second weekend. Which is huge, because you've never been this far -- and it showed. Some might even say you're lucky to be in the Sweet 16. That would not be outrageous either. For much of the game your Aztecs played like your best player missed the team bus. Kawhi Leonard showed up on time but he wasn't there the whole time.

Your school has never been this far and we're starting to understand why. In the first half your team had an 11-point lead. The Aztecs were jammin' and blockin' and runnin'. The architecture at the McKale Center was about to be altered. The screws were loose. The top was about to come off.

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With 7:16 left in regulation, the situation looked almost as comfortable. Your team had a seven-point lead. Then it scored one basket the rest of the way. Temple was able to tie it, take it to two overtimes. Down the stretch, those Owls played with the heart of the great John Chaney. For long stretches, Leonard's play was as frightening as Lon Chaney. A San Diego State's rowdy student section, "The Show," looked like it was going to close.

As much as the Aztecs struggled in a 71-64 double-overtime win, though, the Owls were slightly worse. That's why you can celebrate, San Diego. You can go nuts. See you in Anaheim for the West Regional where your team that had never won an NCAA tournament game a couple of days ago now is two wins away from the Final Four. It wasn't handsome but when you factor in fatigue and wear and desperation, these types of games tend to resemble Marty Feldman.

"When you play a game like this and lose it's so disastrous for a while mentally you can't comprehend it," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "It was not perfect basketball. The fight and toughness and the will to win was there for both teams."

Temple coach Fran Dunphy is the one that goes away devastated. His Owls were outshot, outrebounded and had six of their shots blocked. Still, they were there at the end. The biggest play of the game might have been Malcolm Thomas' block of Temple's Lavoy Allen with 43 seconds left. The Owls trailed by three at that point and never got closer.

It had been Allen's shot that sent the game to overtime, tying it 54-54 with 51 seconds left. Eight players played at least 43 minutes, three played all 50. Neither team shot 35 percent in the second half.

"I think both teams were dog tired," Dunphy said, "just going on adrenaline at that point. I think San Diego State was a little longer, a little quicker."

After playing 46 minutes, Leonard's numbers didn't look that bad. A guy who averages a double-double had 16 points and nine rebounds. But he also missed nine of 14 shots and turned it over four times. In three different situations at the end of regulation and the first overtime with the shot clock turned off, San Diego State's best player didn't come close to shooting with the game on the line.

"I was missing some shots today," Leonard said, "some easy ones."

But when they needed him most, Leonard was there. He sank two free throws with 30.4 seconds left to get the lead to 69-64. A jam with 19 seconds left got McKale rocking again. The game proved a couple of things going forward: The Aztecs have depth. Fisher should thank his lucky stars for his other bigs. Thomas blocked four shots. Billy White had 16 points and 13 rebounds. Also, The Show got ahead of itself chanting, "We want Kemba!" The Show and the Aztecs will get their chance Thursday in the West Regional semis against Connecticut.

"I guess they want to see a good game," Leonard said of fellow national player of the year candidate Kemba Walker. "He's a good player."

In the first half, the Owls were in danger of getting run out of the building. Point guard, Juan Fernandez, was in foul trouble. Dunphy came out briefly in a zone in the second half and his bigs stuck to Leonard like security guards. On this night of mediocrity, the Aztecs' 6-foot-7 power forward made one of his biggest plays late. Leonard's basket with 2:10 left in regulation was the only one for his team in the last seven-plus minutes.

Temple made a comeback, somehow. Trailing by four with 10½ minutes left, it then missed its next seven shots. San Diego State did not take the opening. Temple came out of the drought, trailing by only five.

"It must be these rims here," San Diego State's Brian Carlwell said. "I guess that's why we needed our defense."

The Aztecs needed more than that. It needed everyone, including The Show to drag this program into the Sweet 16 for the first time.

"To continue on in this event, you have to be good," Fisher said. "You have to have excellence, but you also have to be fortunate."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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