LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Guard Ryan Nembhard slumped at his locker as he attempted to sum up the pain of being on the wrong end of the game-deciding call in No. 6 seed Creighton's Elite Eight loss to 5-seed San Diego State.
"It was a great game," Nembhard said. "Sucks it had to end that way, but it is what it is."
With a spot in the Final Four on the line and the game tied, Nembhard fouled San Diego State guard Darrion Trammell with 1.2 seconds remaining on a drive to the basket. Replays showed Nembhard had his left hand on Trammell's right hip as he trailed Trammell into the paint. Nembhard appeared to have a handful of Trammell's jersey before nudging him after he released the ball.
Official Lee Cassell called the foul, perhaps a beat late, sending Trammell to the free throw line. With his four teammates on the floor standing at midcourt, their arms locked, Trammell missed the first shot. He took a deep breath. He swished the second shot for the final point of the Aztecs' 57-56 win, sending the school -- and the Mountain West Conference -- to its first Final Four.
"I wouldn't say I was surprised; I think I got fouled," said Trammell, who scored 12 points. He added: "The moment wasn't too big for me. ... I missed the first one. I definitely wasn't going to miss the second."
San Diego State will play No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic in Houston on Saturday, a clash of two first-time Final Four participants. One of them also will be a first-time partaker in the national title game next Monday night.
Creighton came achingly close to the school's first Final Four, as the game was tied five times in the final six minutes. But the Bluejays sputtered offensively in the second half -- shooting just 27.6% -- and never found a way to pull ahead over that stretch.
The game's frantic final minute included a missed Creighton shot by Trey Alexander that hit the rim four times, a momentum-changing steal and basket by Creighton's Baylor Scheierman with 34 seconds left for the game's final tie, and a lengthy replay review on the inbounds play after the controversial foul.
Creighton's last gasp with 1.2 seconds left ended in ambiguity, as a full-court pass by Scheierman went out of bounds, seemingly ending the game. But after SDSU players stormed the court, officials went to the replay booth and both teams huddled. The officials never made a determination of who the ball last touched, as Creighton's Arthur Kaluma and SDSU's Aguek Arop both leapt for the ball some 90 feet from where it was inbounded and appeared to touch it at the same time.
After a long delay, the officials whistled the game over amid a blur of confusion. An NCAA statement after the game said officials "ruled the clock hit zero before the ball touched out of bounds" and time expired.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott said he never was given clarity on the floor about why the game ended. He declined to comment when asked directly about the call on Nembhard, which could have been considered the type of play officials had let go throughout a rugged game. (Creighton was whistled for just four first-half fouls, and SDSU attempted just six total free throws for the game.)
"Two teams played their tails off, and officiating is part of the game," McDermott said. "We're not going to go there. We lost the game because we didn't do enough, and San Diego State did."
When the officials ruled the game was over, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher was in the middle of a huddle attempting to draw up scenarios, despite not knowing who had the ball or how much time was left. Dutcher held a black marker and clipboard in his hands, and he appeared momentarily surprised as the celebration began around him.
"It was controlled madness," Dutcher said of that huddle. "I'm glad there was no time left because ... the last team to have the ball would have had a chance to win the game."
The Aztecs held Creighton to a season-low 23 points in the second half and for the second consecutive game forced the opposition into a garish shooting night. After No. 1 overall seed Alabama shot 3-for-27 from 3-point range on Friday, Creighton finished the game 2-for-17 from beyond the arc.
San Diego State will be the rugged bully of this Final Four, as the Aztecs go nine players deep and can be susceptible to long lulls on offense. But their defense will travel to Houston. They won Sunday despite shooting just 37.9% overall from the field and 1-for-8 from the 3-point line in the second half.
Creighton missed all 10 of its 3-point attempts in the second half, and Dutcher attributed "tired legs" as part of SDSU's winning recipe.
"It was hard for us to score," Dutcher said. "But it was just a war of attrition, and we came out on top."
Lamont Butler led San Diego State with 18 points on 8-for-11 shooting, the only player who consistently found a rhythm on Sunday. Creighton's Ryan Kalkbrenner finished with 17 points.
But it was the final frenzy and officiating ambiguity that this game will be remembered for, as the free throw following Nembhard's controversial foul provided the scoring difference. In a town where photo finishes at Churchill Downs are part of the lore, this was a basketball version.
"It's a tough feeling," Nembhard said. "You work so hard all year, and it comes down to a play like that. I don't know. I think we could have done a little bit more to make it a game that didn't have to go down to that, but it's a tough way to lose."
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