Sweet 16 - The battle for supremacy in the West is set - The Explorer: Sports

Sweet 16 - The battle for supremacy in the West is set

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Posted: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 1:37 pm

Top-seeded Arizona and No. 4 seed San Diego State will meet Thursday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. The winner not only moves on to the West Regional final, but also adds another notch to what has become an annual meeting in recent years.

It will mark the 10th meeting between the programs since 2002, including each of the last three years, and the second this season. The Wildcats grinded out a 69-60 road win over the Aztecs in an early-season contest last November.

Among SDSU's wins in the head-to-head is a 61-57 decision at McKale Center on Nov. 23, 2011 - otherwise known as Arizona's last regular-season nonconference home loss.

"A lot of people are saying it's a rivalry," UA senior guard Jordin Mayes said, ironically in the SDSU home locker room after Arizona dismantled Gonzaga, 84-61, in the third round of the NCAA tournament. "All I know is it's a hard-fought game every time we play them. We know that they're going to come out ready. We're both good, defensive teams so we have to come out ready on the offensive end, also. It's going to be a battle we're looking forward to."

The last time Arizona and San Diego State met, freshman Aaron Gordon (left) provided the signature moment by catching and finishing this in-bound lob with 1:22 play. It helped propel the Wildcats to a 69-60 road win in early November.

Each of the last three games have been decided by single digits, and the most recent clash was the start to Arizona's nonconference gauntlet - although, SDSU was not ranked at the time but ultimately finished 13th in the Associated Press Top 25 and 11th in the final coaches' poll.

Then, the Wildcats were the No. 6 team in the country. Viejas Arena, the same floor the Wildcats steamrolled Gonzaga on to advance to the Sweet 16, was the site of Aaron Gordon's first signature performance in his collegiate career.

Gordon made his first five shots - including a pair of 3-pointers - before foul trouble slowed him and the Wildcats down. Four UA players picked up four fouls, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was disqualified with five.

Trailing by as many as 14 late in the first half, the Aztecs chipped away and pulled within 62-58 on a Xavier Thames layup with 1:52 remaining.

But it was Gordon to the rescue. With 1:22 left, the freshman's athleticism helped him soar over Dakarai Allen on an in-bounds lob from T.J. McConnell for the dagger.

Gordon finished with 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go with eight rebounds, three steals, two assists and two blocks.

"Aaron Gordon is a good player," Aztecs head coach Steve Fisher said that night. "I knew that, you knew that - the whole world knew that. He doesn't play like a freshman."

How tough was the victory? SDSU had won 40 of its 41 nonconference home games, and after the loss the Aztecs reeled off 20 consecutive victories and jumped to as high as No. 5 in the polls.

Picked to finish fourth in the preseason Mountain West Conference poll, SDSU claimed the regular-season crown before losing to New Mexico in the conference tournament championship game.

Arizona followed a similar path, dominating the Pac-12 before falling in a tournament title game classic to UCLA.

Most recently, the Aztecs are coming off Thames' 30 points and five assists in a 63-44 third-round win over No. 12 seed North Dakota State in Spokane, Wash.

With a number of battles over the years - including one of the more humbling losses, a 63-46 blowout in his first season in December 2009 - UA head coach Sean Miller said the respect is there.

"I've really followed them for two reasons," Miller said. "One, nobody respects San Diego State more than myself. Coach Fisher, what he's done here is nothing short of remarkable. It reminds me of Xavier, Dayton, Creighton, some of the schools in the midwest that, in my mind, maybe get more notoriety. But San Diego State also has my attention, and also because we played them early in the year (and) you want them to win every game because that helps you.

"They're fearless, tough‑minded. It's going to be one heck of a battle and I'm glad to have the opportunity

Get all our UA Wildcats news at www.goazcats.com

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