A well-coached BCS conference team with superior talent used its advantages in size and athleticism to overcome a lesser known school from a small conference. Sure the upstart team hit a few tough 3-pointers and hung around for a while, but down the stretch the bigger, stronger team took over and pulled away for a double-digit win.
That's what happened on Thursday, it just so happened that the Aztecs were playing the role of the No. 6 seed and the Wolfpack was the higher seed trying to pull off an ‘upset' (the Pack was actually favored by one in the game). Despite being on the bubble for most of the season the Pack looked and played the part of big conference contender for most of the day.
"I believe in these guys, I really do," Mark Gottfried said. "I have believed that if in fact they could do things the right way, defend the right way, execute offense at key times, that they had a chance. So it's nice to see all that come together right now."
Gottfried and the rest of the coaching staff put together a picture perfect plan for defeating the Aztecs. The coaching staff knew the Aztecs had a lot of talent but were lacking in size and it's clear they felt their big men could dominate the post. They were right.
"I thought today inside around the basket we were able to get a lot done," Gottfried said. "And I thought Richard in the first half was just sensational."
Indeed, Howell was sensational in that half. He scored 15 of his 22 points in the first 20 minutes and was hitting mid-range jumpers at the top of the key. He also managed to go foul free for the first half, though he made up for that with four fouls in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
"We knew they didn't have anybody as unique as Rich is," CJ Williams said. "His skillset is amazing for a player his size... we wanted to take advantage of that and use him more."
Howell was hardly the only post player to exploit the Aztecs' small line-up. All of the Pack's big men played well – CJ Leslie was just 5-of-10 from the floor but got to the line consistently and threw down a few highlight dunks. DeShawn Painter hit 4-of-5 of his field goals and helped the Pack hold onto its lead when Howell went to the bench with four fouls.
"I was just playing my role," Painter said. "When I go in there they expect me to knock down open shots and play good defense."
The defensive end was a much tougher challenge for the Pack. The Aztecs had quick, athletic guards who could both drive and shoot – it's an offensive attack the Pack hadn't seen from its opposition during league play.
"It's a hard to play against," Gottfried said. "It's a matchup nightmare with the whole game with how they play. You're always trying to solve the problem from a matchup standpoint."
Again though, the Pack played to its strengths and the coaches adjusted when necessary. When James Franklin got hot early – and CJ Leslie picked up two early fouls – they rotated Williams over to him and kept the Aztec star in check. When Chase Tapley tried to single-handedly carry SDSU in the second half the Pack went so far as to double the guard on the wing and force the Aztecs to dump it inside to their post players. For every problem presented, the Pack had a solution that worked.
"More than anything we just needed to convince our guys: You're going to do it today with defense," Gottfried said. "Your defense will win the game for you. And that's what you've gotta do. And I thought after that we really defended much better.
The Pack and its coaches showed the sort of game-planning acumen and execution necessary to succeed in tournament play. There's no predicting how the Pack will play against Georgetown – a team with more size and athleticism that plays a tricky style that's been ranked in the top 15 for most of the season. But one thing is certain – they will show up Sunday prepared and ready to battle.