The road to New York City is over.
The road to the NIT Championship has just begun.
San Diego State’s 72-56 victory over Georgia Tech in the quarterfinals of the NIT assures the Aztecs a chance to play in the Big Apple for the first time since 2009.
It’s not a road the Aztecs wanted, but it’s one they, and their fans, have embraced.
Viejas Arena was for the second time in three days as loud as it’s been all season long for the Aztecs.
It was absolutely electric.
And it was needed.
After the Aztecs blew a 10-point lead in the first half, and Georgia Tech tied it up at 31 at half time, all signs seemed pointed toward an inevitable letdown.
The Aztecs and Yellow Jackets traded blows to start the second half. Despite SDSU’s six missed field goals (and two free throws) in the first 5:25, the Aztecs held a 2-point lead.
A glimmer of hope was there, but nothing convincing.
Leave it up the Aztecs polarizing senior, Winston Shepard, to change re-ignite the fire.
Shepard, who went just 1-5 from the field in the first half with three points, got the Aztecs and the crowd back into it after a beautiful floater in the paint pushed the Aztecs to a 6-point lead with 13:14 remaining.
The crowd was alive again.
The ensuing Georgia Tech possession resulted in a shot-clock violation.
Viejas Arena went nuts.
The referees went to the bench to review the call to make sure that Georgia Tech did not get the shot off in time. Meanwhile, the crowd started chanting, “Let’s go Aztecs,” “Let’s go Aztecs” for the entire duration.
It was as loud as it’s ever been at the arena.
The call stood, and the Aztecs never looked back.
Trey Kell led San Diego State with 18 points (7-12 FG, 4-5 3-pt) while Winston Shepard chipped in 12 points, five rebounds and 2 assists.
Malik Pope struggled to find his form offensively (4-14 FG, 1-5 3-pt), but did finish with a double-double, scoring 10 points and recording a team-high 10 rebounds. He was crucial on the boards against a physical Georgia Tech team known for its rebounding.
However, it was Pope’s shot-clock buzzer beating 3-pointer with 1:13 remaining that was the dagger, giving the Aztecs a 69-56 lead.
Skylar Spencer, normally quiet offensively and loud on the boards, added eight points, three blocks, and two rebounds.
In the first half, San Diego State jumped out to a 10-point lead first eight minutes in. Trey Kell hit two 3-pointers in that span and the crowd was rocking.
It was looking good for San Diego State.
But Georgia Tech hung around.
With 10:17 remaining, the Yellow Jackets went on a 21-10 run to close the half. They made nine of their last 10 shots while the Aztecs only made four of their last 10.
SDSU’s best chance to push the lead in the remaining minutes came when Dakarai Allen swiped a Georgia Tech pass under the basket. The crowd was pumped, the Aztecs pushed the court, and Winston Shepard missed a turnaround jumper.
It would have pushed the Aztecs lead to six with 1:43 remaining. Instead, Georgia Tech hit a jumper and two free throws to tie the game up.
No matter, San Diego State held Georgia Tech to just 33 percent shooting (9-27) in the second half, and overall, outscored the Yellow Jackets 40-28 in the paint, and 17-5 off turnovers.
The Aztecs will face fourth-seeded George Washington Tuesday night at 6 p.m. PT at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
–Andrew Burer (TWITTER: @andrewburer)