PHOENIX – At the beginning of the men’s college basketball season, few would have predicted the San Diego State Aztecs to be in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. Elijah Saunders, a freshman forward on the team and an Arizona product, was one of those few who believed it was possible.
“Once I got here in June and saw how good this team was going to be, I thought we were an Elite Eight or Final Four team going into the season,” Saunders said Tuesday.
His father, Yaki Saunders, was another believer long before the Aztecs beat Colgate, Furman, Alabama and Creighton in their March Madness run to set up Saturday’s semifinal matchup against Florida Atlantic at the NRG Stadium in Houston.
“I knew after the Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-23) they could play against pretty much anyone,” he said of the famed tournament where the Aztecs lost to Arkansas in the third-place game and finished in fourth place behind winner Arizona and runner-up Creighton.
Still riding an incredible run as one of four teams left standing in the NCAA tournament, the Aztecs have converted more believers since last November as a No. 5 seed. They play No. 9 Florida Atlantic in Saturday’s first semifinal, followed by No. 4 UConn vs No. 5 Miami in the other semi. The winners meet for the national championship Monday night, with every player looking for his one shining moment.
For Elijah, it’s an unbelievable journey only one year removed from his high school playing days at Sunnyslope High in north Phoenix, where he learned the value of toughness, determination and winning.
“That is actually a huge reason why I chose San Diego State,” Elijah said. “I knew that San Diego State was a winning program, just like Sunnyslope, when I chose to go there. … This has been a dream of mine. Just being in (the tournament) and being in that moment. It has been amazing.”
At Sunnyslope, Elijah won a 6A state championship as a junior. His best year production wise was his senior year where he averaged 22.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists under coach Ray Portela, who described the “pretty amazing” feeling of watching Saunders advance to the Final Four.
“I’m just excited for Elijah,” Portela said. “The Final Four is such a big thing in our nation, just for him to be a part of it and to get there, it’s an awesome feeling. It’s great to see his hard work pay off as well.”
Yaki, who spent two seasons playing college ball at Arkansas State, played a key role in helping Elijah develop his game using a hands-off approach until called upon. When asked, he’s quick to credit his son for his success.
“If he was going to be great, he was great on his own,” Yaki said. “If he ever needed anything though, I was there for him.”
Elijah’s playing time has been limited during his freshman year, appearing in only 15 of the team’s 37 games. His highest-scoring game came against Kennesaw State on Dec. 12, when he finished with 6 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists.
Despite the lack of playing time, Elijah has found value in being a sponge at practice and during games.
“I feel like I’ve had a great experience learning from the fifth-year guys and other guys on this team,” Elijah said. “It’s been really beneficial for me to learn from them.”
Those around him are confident in his future on the team, including his high school coach, who thinks “he’s going to fit in very well,” and his father, who thinks Elijah will have “a solid role next year.”
“I always tell him it’s always up to him,” Yaki said. “How much time are you going to put in this summer? How much time are you going to put in this spring? Hard work is undefeated.”
The Aztecs are the only West Coast team left in the tournament – a sign Elijah says counts for bragging rights, even if they fall short in Houston.
“I knew we were one of the best programs in the west, and we’ve shown it,” Elijah said. “This program, ever since the last couple years, has been right there at the top.”
If Elijah and the Aztecs want to compete for Monday’s national championship, they will first have to take down the Owls.
The Owls find themselves in a similar position as the Aztecs. As a nine seed in the tournament, few would have imagined Florida Atlantic making it this far. The Owls have taken down Memphis, FDU, Tennessee and Kansas State to make it to the Final Four.
The Owls feature Johnell Davis who has been one of the best players in the tournament so far. Through the team’s first four games, Davis has averaged 17.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.3 points per game. In his most recent performance, Davis had 13 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists to help the Owls beat Kansas State in the Elite Eight.
“I feel like we can’t underestimate them,” Elijah said about the matchup against Florida Atlantic. “We just have to keep that same chip on our shoulder that we’ve had this whole tournament and understand that seeds don’t really matter at this point. If you’ve made it here, you’re obviously a really good team.
“I feel like it is definitely something that we can accomplish. I feel like this has been the perfect run for us. Looking at the bracket I feel like we have some favorable matchups going left in the Final Four. I definitely think we can be cutting down the nets on Monday.”