Ten years ago today something happened that took everyone by surprise.
Steve Fisher, he of national title and Fab Five fame, having been left to toil in obscurity after scandal at University of Michigan led San Diego State, who had failed to even reach a conference tournament final in 17 years to their first Mountain West banner.
I was a newly minted basketball and Aztec fan having only begun to watch the game the year before. The weekend of the tournament I had plans to drive up to LA with some classmates to visit some other friends who attended UCLA. The night before we were to leave one of my roommates had the game on by happenstance.
That game changed everything for me.
With two minutes remaining against regular season champion Wyoming, Aerick Sanders made a layup to get the Aztecs within one at 67-66. Randy Holcomb added another bucket 30 seconds later to take the lead. Marcus Bailey drew a foul and sunk 2 free throws to take the lead. With 19 seconds remaining, Al Faux hit a 15-footer to give the Aztecs the lead.
Wyoming had the ball with the shot clock off. Marcus Bailey attempted a game winner with 4 seconds remaining but it clanged out and Aerick Sanders grabbed the rebound and was promptly fouled with 1.3 seconds remaining. He missed the first free throw and then Fisher called for a timeout.
“When he missed the first free throw and we were one ahead, I asked Aerick if he could miss the second one and hit the rim and Randy said, “just shoot it like you normally do Aerick.” said Fisher after the game.
Sanders missed the free throw but hit the rim and while Wyoming rebounded the ball they were unable to get a shot off before time expired.
At that moment I had a brilliant idea.
“We have to go to the final.”
One of the guys heading up to LA with us grew up in Vegas so he called his parents to pick us up tickets and make sure it was cool if we crashed on their couch.
The next morning we drove up to LA for some planned pick-up basketball games and then out the 10 and up the 15 to Vegas, arriving at the arena just 15 minutes before tip-off.
At some point during the first half we managed to get down into the lower ring of Thomas & Mack Arena and find a small but loud enclave of SDSU fans and students who would soon be dubbed “The Show.”
The Aztecs led for most of this game but (in a style you might recognize from this year’s team) allowed UNLV to scratch their way back into the game. After exchanging free throws for the last minute of the game, UNLV just missed a half-court shot at the buzzer that would’ve forced overtime.
…throngs of Aztec fans began to hover around the baseline for something once thought unfathomable — a conference tournament championship and a court rush. Right as the final buzzer was about to sound, football player Akbar Gbaja-Biamila looked over to a Rebel fan and stated, “Remember this day, when the Aztecs came into your arena and rushed onto your court!” And then the buzzer sounded.
I joined in that court rush and stayed there as they cut down the nets for the first time at Thomas & Mack Arena and then celebrated as hard as anyone that night.
“We hope this is the first of many championships here” Steve Fisher said after that win. Surely now he can be happy he was so right.