SAN DIEGO – Earning a trip to New York and the chance to play at Madison Square Garden is a pretty good consolation prize for Steve Fisher’s San Diego State Aztecs.
Denied a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven seasons, the Aztecs have won three straight home games in the NIT and head to New York for a semifinal game against George Washington on Tuesday night.
While many of the Aztecs haven’t been to New York, they’ve all heard about Madison Square Garden.
“I have no idea what’s in New York,” guard Trey Kell said Friday. “I mean, I just know Madison Square Garden, that’s about it. So whatever I see, I’ll be happy with. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to go to New York to play in that famous arena.
“You watch the NBA, and every known basketball player says they love going to New York, like they want to put on a show, from LeBron to Kobe and Michael. So it’s just one of those things that if it’s special to them, it must be really crazy and special to play there. I’m just excited for the experience,” Kell said.
“My favorite memory is when Reggie Miller beat New York by himself,” guard Dakarai Allen said, referring to when Miller scored eight points in the last nine seconds to lead Indianapolis to victory against the Knicks in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals. “Just playing on that same court where he made history, that’s just crazy to even think about.”
The Aztecs (28-9) clinched the Mountain West Conference regular-season title with three games to play. But they lost in the conference tournament title game to Fresno State, which cost them a seventh straight NCAA berth.
Relegated to the NIT, they beat IPFW, Washington and Georgia Tech.
After the Aztecs won 72-56 on Wednesday night, Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said the Aztecs were in the wrong tournament.
Skylar Spencer said the Aztecs do have a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
“But it is what it is. We’re in this tournament and we’re making the most out of it. It just pushed everybody’s motivation to a whole different planet. We’re ultra-focused,” Spencer said.
Already known for playing great defense, the Aztecs have been on an offensive run, as well.
“We all have our utmost confidence right now, from me to Dakarai, Sky, Winston (Shepard), everyone on the team,” said Kell, the only Aztecs player to make All-MWC first team. “We all have confidence in our abilities. We have confidence that if we have an open shot, we’re going to make it. If someone has the open shot, we’ll pass it to them. Right now we’re just making the right play and everything’s starting to fall for us.”
The Aztecs reached the NIT semifinals in 2009 before being blown out by Baylor.
Another bonus for the Aztecs is a potential title game matchup against former longtime conference rival BYU, if the Cougars beat Valparaiso and the Aztecs take care of George Washington.
Fisher said he remains good friends with BYU coach Dave Rose, and that their wives not only are friends, but text each other during games.
“Cheryl Rose, after they won, said, ‘See you in New York,’” Fisher said. “So yeah, that would be fun. We want to get there. I know they do. But I also know Valpo does.”
Fisher said he got a phone call from Homer Drew, the former Valpo coach whose son, Bryce, coaches the Crusaders.
“If you do this as long as I have, you have relationships and people you like and know,” Fisher said. “I’ve known the Drew family since I was a high school coach. Homer was coaching at Valpo at the time. It’s going to be fun to play whoever we play. But there’s a history with BYU.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.