March 17, 2011

Bears' historic run ends in Tucson

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

TUCSON, Ariz. -- San Diego State's players chased Devon Beitzel around screens, got hands in his face, challenged his shots.

Nothing seemed to work, just like in two of their regular-season games against BYU's Jimmer Fredette.

But, just like they did against Fredette, the Aztecs eventually figured out a way to shut down "Jimmer Junior" on Thursday and pulled away late in a 68-50 win in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at McKale Center.

Beitzel finished with 25 points in his final career game for Northern Colorado (21-11), with 11 of those coming in rapid succession in a four-minute span in the second half that pulled the Bears to within three, 38-35, with 14:11 to play.

The Aztecs, who, like the Bears, entered the game without an NCAA Tournament win in their history, tightened their defense from there, though, and kept Northern Colorado off the board for nearly seven minutes, until a Mike Proctor layup at 7:36 made it 51-37.

San Diego State (33-2) withstood Beitzel's final flurry and turned the Bears' potential upset bid into a runaway season-ending loss.

"I can't fault our guys' effort," Northern Colorado coach B.J. Hill said. "I thought they played extremely hard, thought we followed the game play for about 34 minutes tonight. Hat's off San Diego State. They're even better in person than what they are on video."

Chris Kaba backed Beitzel with 10 points in his final career game, and sophomore Elliott Lloyd emerged from a late-season scoring swoon with nine points, hitting 4-of-7 field goals.

Senior Taylor Montgomery ended his career by ripping down a season high-tying 12 rebounds, and Proctor, a junior, joined the Bears' board party with six rebounds in 19 minutes.

Northern Colorado, an undersized bunch on the national scale, actually entered the game with a rebounding margin (+5.4) that ranked them 24th in the country.

And the Bears hung with the Mountain West's rebounding kings into the start of the second half, but lost some steam after Beitzel's scoring flurry and saw their deficit grow on nearly every trip down the floor.

"We knew they loved to crash," Montgomery said. "And they had players that really got a lot of offensive rebounds and crash all the time. So our main focus, I know for the front line, was to hit bodies and create space, then just go get the ball."

The game represented a disappointing end, for sure, for Northern Colorado, but it also served as a statement notice as to just how far this program has risen since it had the nation's worst RPI just a few years ago.

"After the game, you know, I just told them I'm proud of them," said Hill, who ended his first year at Northern Colorado with the best first-year coaching record in school history. "Any coach would be so lucky to coach those seniors and the guys underneath them. They're tremendous kids, they got great character, they built a prog ram.

"Where there was a Division II program just five years ago, those guys have built a championship-level Division I program. That's an amazing, amazing feat in that short of time.

"So I just told them to carry their heads high when they walk out. They're champions and they need to carry themselves like that."

The Aztecs came into Thursday on the heels of their best season in 90 years as a program, setting a school record for wins and avenging their only two losses during the regular season by steamrolling BYU in the Mountain West Conference tournament title game last Saturday in Las Vegas.

What San Diego State needed to punctuate it all was an NCAA tournament victory.

Northern Colorado's task, on the other hand, was to avoid getting run over by the No. 3 RPI team in the country, while staring at the lights on collegiate basketball's biggest stage.

Task achieved.

The Bears have only been a Division I program since 2006-07 and made a quick climb this season after getting off to a rough start, including sitting at just 4-7 entering Big Sky Conference play. Northern Colroado ended up winning this season's Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles to get into the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

The Bears have a pack of tenacious rebounders and one of the nation's best smaller-program players in Beitzel, the NCAA's 12th-leading scorer (21.4 poin ts).

But this was a much bigger stage, and the game was played against a taller, more athletic team than anything the Bears see in the Big Sky.

San Diego State's Billy White got a lot of credit for putting a stop to Fredette last week in Las Vegas, and he figured to get the task of controlling Beitzel on Thursday.

Instead, Aztecs coach Steve Fisher changed things up, sending Chase Tapley out to hound the Bears' leading scorer.

It worked in the first half.

Beitzel hit some shots early, but had to work hard for everything he got, even to get through screens. Tapley swatted a shot from behind after Beitzel got by him in the early going, then got a piece of a 3-point attempt a few minutes later.

Beitzel got the last laugh, though, and sparked a flurry of "DevonBeitzel" Twitter bombs with his second-half run that nearly won over the "neutral" crowd and gave Northern Colorado's packed fan section hope of an upset.

Getting good screens from his teammates, the senior from Lafayette heated up after the half, popping in a pair of 3-pointers and a just-t he-right-English drive through the lane in the first four minutes.

He added another three with just over 14 minutes left that made it 38-35.

"I was just trying to stay aggressive," Beitzel said. "That's all that was. I was just trying to stay aggressive. The guys were doing a good job setting screens and finding me when I was open."

Turned out to be the end for Northern Colorado.

For this year.

"We can walk with our heads held high," Montgomery said. "Even though we lost this game, from the beginning of the season, this is what we talked about. We talked about winning our conference, winning the tournament championship, then make it to the NCAA's."

"We made history this year," Beitzel added. "We made history as a program, we did a lot of firsts. And we have nothing to feel but proud for doing so."