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Xavier Thames’ 30 leads Aztecs past Bison 63-44

March 23, 2014

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — All week it was about enjoying the setting for North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips. Along with cracking a few one-liners.

Having to reflect on being bounced from the NCAA tournament finally brought the tears.

“It’s only the greatest professional week of my life. I got to watch a group of guys that deserved it, who wanted it so bad, and made it a priority in their life and did everything I asked them to do,” Phillips said. “This season? Wow. Let’s just say this: It’s why I do what I do.”

Xavier Thames and fourth-seeded San Diego State ended the run of the 12th-seeded Bison with a 63-44 victory Saturday in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

A year after the Aztecs (31-4) were sent home in the third round by Florida Gulf Coast, Thames was determined not to see history repeated. The Mountain West Conference player of the year was unstoppable, while San Diego State’s defense forced the Bison into their worst offensive game of the season.

Bad timing with an unlikely spot in the round of 16 at stake.

“That’s disappointing for me, just being on this stage and not being able to perform like I know I’m capable of,” North Dakota State’s Taylor Braun said. “For us seniors, it’s time to go to the real world now, so it’s not how you want to go out.”

Kory Brown led the Bison (26-7) with 13 points, but it was the struggles of Braun, their leading scorer, that left them playing catch up. Braun missed nine straight shots during one stretch. Sometimes he was guarded by Thames. Other times it was J.J. O’Brien taking a turn on the Summit League player of the year.

Braun finished 2-of-14 shooting and just seven points. North Dakota State shot 50.9 percent for the season to lead the country, but could only make 31.9 percent against the Aztecs. Braun wasn’t alone. Lawrence Alexander, who had 28 points against Oklahoma in the second round and forced overtime with a 3-pointer that will be forever remembered in Fargo, finished with just three against the Aztecs.

The 44 points were a season-low for the Bison, the previous low being 56 in a win over Western Illinois.

“I wasn’t really satisfied with how I played on Thursday either. You don’t want to go out like this,” Braun said. “I’m 2 for 14 in my last college game? I mean, I don’t know. There were shots I’m extremely comfortable taking and I normally hit at a high percentage, so I don’t know what to say.”

North Dakota State was one of three No. 12 seeds to help create another manic March by upsetting No. 5 seed Oklahoma 80-75 in overtime on Thursday. They had the players and the personality to become this year’s version of FGCU — just minus all those dunks.

Their gutty win over Oklahoma that featured clutch shots and unlikely contributors, introduced the Bison to the country and got the attention of San Diego State coach Steve Fisher.

“I think they will continue to be very successful,” Fisher said. “And this experience will obviously help them.”

Thames, who was 9 of 19 from the field, had five assists and ended the comeback hopes of the Bison with a six-point spurt late in the second half that pushed the Aztecs’ lead to 12. He finished one shy of his career-high in points.

Dwayne Polee II was the only other San Diego State player in double figures with 15, but the Aztecs didn’t need a ton of scoring with Thames carrying the load and another defensive performance that suffocated the best shooting team in the country.

“I think it was a typical defensive game,” San Diego State’s Josh Davis said.

Thames did it all for the Aztecs in the first half. He was responsible for 23 of San Diego State’s 30 points, scoring 16 and assisting on another three baskets. He started the second half with a floater in the lane, a shot he repeated minutes later. He then found Polee on the wing for a 3 and the Aztecs lead was back to 40-30 after a quick North Dakota State spurt had trimmed the deficit to five.

Braun finally got a shot to fall when he spun in a reverse layup with 12:11 left, his first field goal in nearly 27 minutes of game time. By that point, the Bison were down eight and could never get much closer.

“I won’t guarantee we’ll be back here,” Phillips said. “But I think if we do what we did with this group, we have got a pretty good template to give it an effort.”

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