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Thames leads Aztecs into Sweet 16

Xavier Thames is one of the few players who can earn national acclaim for his defense despite the offensive skill to account for nearly half of his team’s points in an NCAA tournament win. On Saturday he showed 12th-seeded North Dakota State that he can score baskets as well as he stops them, putting on an offensive show in fourth-seeded San Diego State’s 63-44 win. He scored 16 of his 30 points in the first half to grind the Aztecs to a 30-23 lead. He scored every which way, alternating between kicking his heels up to knock down a 3-pointer early in the shot clock and blowing past a defender for a free basket or free throws. The teams slugged it out in the first half and it appeared that neither team would have the edge heading into the locker room. But with less than three minutes before halftime Thames fed Winston Shepard for a layup. Then he hit a 3-pointer and assisted on another to Dwayne Polee II to give SDSU a comfortable seven-point halftime margin. “The kid had a couple moves where, well, put it this way, we don’t have anybody who can simulate it in practice,” NDSU coach Saul Phillips said. Thames committed a costly turnover on Thursday against New Mexico State that allowed NMSU to score and send the game into overtime, nearly prematurely ending the Aztecs’ season. On Saturday he took away any question of who would advance. He hit the first shot of the second half – a point of emphasis for coach Steve Fisher – and the Aztecs were on their way to the Sweet 16. “It was very important,” Thames said of keeping the momentum from their run to end the first half. “We had the lead last game against New Mexico State and we kind of came out flat in the second half. So I just reminded the guys before the second half started that we can’t come out flat like we did against New Mexico State, and I think we did that for the most part.” The onetime backup point guard at Washington State scored or assisted on 45 points, accounting for one more point than the Bisons. In addition to his work on the offensive end, Thames keyed a defensive effort that held the nation’s best-shooting team to 31.9 percent. Marshall Bjorklund ranks second among all Division-I players, shooting 63.4 percent from the field. He finished the night 3 of 7. “Their length bothered us, there’s no question about that,” Phillips said. Taylor Braun led the Bison in scoring this season with an average of 18.2 points per game. Thames and the Aztecs held Braun to just seven points on 14 shots. Polee II said they “cut his water off.” The Bison went thirsty on offense all game long and it kept them from mounting a comeback even when the Aztecs – minus Thames of course – went cold in the second half.
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