CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — San Diego State coach Steve Fisher never expected his team to shoot 22 3-pointers, particularly against a team they held a big height advantage against like St. John’s.
But then Fisher figured if it was working, why change?
“The threes we got were wide open and were taken by guys who can shoot and make them,” Fisher said.
JJ O’Brien scored 18 points, Dwayne Polee II added 15 points on five 3-pointers against his former team and the Aztecs defeated St. John’s 76-64 on Friday night in their opening round game of the NCAA Tournament.
Skylar Spencer added 10 points and seven rebounds for the Aztecs (27-8), who’ll face the South’s top seed Duke on Sunday.
The Aztecs never trailed in the second half and improved to 6-4 in NCAA Tournament play since 2011.
Polee, who transferred from St. John’s early in his college career, made national headlines when he collapsed on the court during a game against UC Riverside in December because of an irregular heartbeat, so his big night was extra rewarding.
He was 5 of 7 on 3-pointers.
“My teammates found me in a position where I could shoot the ball,” Polee said. “I was open because we have a lot of great players on this team that allowed me to get open.”
Sir’Dominic Pointer had 21 points and 10 rebounds, and D’Angelo Harrison added 18 points for St. John’s, which failed in its quest to win its first tournament game since 2000.
St. John’s would have had to overcome a lot to win.
They played without center Chris Obekpa, who was suspended on Sunday for a violation of team rules, Pointer played through a hip injury and guard Rysheed Jordan picked up two fouls in the first two minutes and had to sit the rest of the half.
“He’s been our catalyst late in the season,” coach Steve Lavin said of Jordan.
Jordan finished with 10 points including one high-flying dunk on a baseline drive, reminiscent of another Jordan who once wore No. 23 and now owns the NBA’s Hornets, which play in this building. Lavin second-guessed himself after the game, wondering if he should have brought Jordan back in the first half.
He called Jordan’s early foul trouble the difference in the game.
Obekpa’s absence was big too.
With the nation’s fifth-leading shot blocker out, San Diego State’s height was a factor all night. The Aztecs held a 40-32 edge on the glass and had 13 offensive rebounds.
“Our goal was to get the first rebound, but they were just bigger than us on some plays and there was nothing we do about it,” Harrison said.
Polee set the tone early knocking down three 3-pointers in the first five minutes — including two off the glass — for an early 13-6 lead. San Diego State was 7 of 16 from beyond the arc in the first half.
The Aztecs stretched an eight-point lead at the break to 14 early in the second half behind Polee’s fourth 3-pointer of the game.
St. John’s would get back to within seven points in the second half, but then turned the ball over on four of its next five possessions.
Despite the loss, Lavin repeated what he said earlier in the week, calling it the most gratifying season of his coaching career, and thanked his seniors for taking him on an “incredible ride.”
“True to form, they fought and scrapped and showed grit until the end,” Lavin said.
St. John’s: St. John’s only attempted one free throw in the first half.
San Diego State: In the waning moments of the game, San Diego State fans began chanting “We want Duke!”
Guard Aqeel Quinn only played 19 points for San Diego State after battling a case of food poisoning. Fisher said he hopes Quinn will be ready to go in the next game after a day of rest.
“He could hardly stand up,” Fisher said. “He tried (to play), but he was not obviously at full strength.”
Lavin said Obekpa’s future at St. John’s will be decided in the coming weeks, but said “I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he doesn’t return to St. John’s.”
St. John’s: Season is over.
San Diego State: Will face top-seeded Duke on Sunday in the round of 32.
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