ORLANDO, Fla. — Matt Bradley's last NCAA Tournament game essentially ended with him bobbling the ball out of bounds, a costly turnover against Creigton in an overtime loss last year.
There was zero chance he was going to do it again.
Bradley scored 17 points and made play after play down the stretch, including hitting two free throws in the final minute, and No. 5 seed San Diego State held on to beat 12th-seeded College of Charleston 63-57 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
The victory was a measure of redemption for Bradley, whose mistake last year proved costly in the three-point loss.
“I'm just thinking positive things,” said Bradley, who insisted he had no flashbacks to the gaffe. “I'm looking at the bench and everybody trusts me now. Nobody side-eying. I think I have full trust in my teammates and in my coaches on making that free throw, so it felt really good.”
The senior provided pivotal plays in this one, helping the Aztecs (28-6) win their first game in the Big Dance since 2015. They ended a four-game losing streak in the tournament and snapped an 11-game skid for the Mountain West Conference.
“Everybody makes us aware of (the losing streak),” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “The thing that you can’t lose sight of is every team and every season is different. You know, there is no history.
“This team is creating its own history right now. ... We're not worried about past failures or successes. We’re only focused on the moment, and that’s how you win games.”
The Cougars (31-4) lost for the first time in six weeks and have not won an NCAA tournament game since 1997.
San Diego State advanced to face 13th-seeded Furman in the South Region at the Amway Center on Saturday. The Paladins used a late steal and 3-pointer to stun No. 4 seed Virginia four years to the day since the Cavaliers became the first and only No. 1 seed to lose in the opening round.
Charleston looked to provide another upset in Orlando, but coach Pat Kelsey’s scrappy team simply couldn’t do enough down the stretch.
San Diego State did.
Bradley scored on a driving layup coming out of a timeout with 2:37 to play, breaking a tie and ending a nearly 3-minute scoring drought for the Aztecs. Micah Parrish followed with a huge 3-pointer, giving them a little breathing room in the final minutes.
Charleston looked like it might be able to rally, but Jaylon Scott was called for a foul as Bradley shot a 3. He hit two of three from the charity stripe to essentially seal it.
Ante Brzovic led Charleston with 12 points and eight rebounds. Ryan Larson added 11 points, and seventh-year senior Dalton Bolon finished his college career with 10 points.
“These seniors, although they played their last game in a Charleston uniform, they're going to leave a legacy that's going to last decades,” Kelsey said.
Bradley, one of four senior starters for San Diego State, chipped in seven rebounds and four assists.
“We understand how important it is to close out games because in March Madness anybody can win,” Bradley said. “Ranking doesn't matter. Nothing matters. The hardest team is going to win, and that's what we did.”
Charleston: The Cougars had three graduate-senior starters who carried them to the tournament, and Kelsey will probably turn to the transfer portal to find replacements. The one glaring weakness against San Diego State was a post presence as the team got outscored by 12 points in the paint.
San Diego State: The Aztecs salvaged what looked to be another rough start for the Mountain West. Nevada lost in a play-in game Wednesday night to extend the league’s losing skid to double digits, and Utah State made it 11 straight with a loss to Missouri early Thursday. But the conference champs stepped up and got the league back in the win column.
Charleston gets to work rebuilding a senior-laden roster. The Cougars have five seniors to replace before the 2023-24 season.