NEW YORK >> It took a pointed pep talk from coach Steve Fisher to get his San Diego State players focused on the National Invitation Tournament.
Rejected by the NCAA committee on Selection Sunday after six consecutive trips to college basketball's biggest event, the Aztecs were despondent.
"There's that immense disappointment initially. You feel sorry for yourself. And when we met on Sunday, they were down. I made the comment, you had to pull 'em up off the curb," Fisher recalled Monday.
"But I said, 'If you are not able to get excited about our tournament, don't show up for practice tomorrow.' And I won't embarrass you, you'll have an injury that's keeping you from playing. Don't worry. But if you show up tomorrow, that tells me you are so excited about us. And they were."
No doubt about that now.
Seeded second in their NIT quadrant, the defense-minded Aztecs (28-9) started making shots and romped their way to three straight wins — two against teams from Power 5 conferences — by an average of 18.3 points.
Next up, they'll play fourth-seeded George Washington (26-10) on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden for a spot in the championship game.
Top-seeded Valparaiso (29-6) meets No. 2 seed BYU (26-10) in the first semifinal.
"We're going to go to New York City, we're going to play in the Garden, we're going to win the championship. That's been our theme the whole time," said the 71-year-old Fisher, who coached Michigan to the 1989 national title and a victory in the NIT championship game eight years later.
Once he got his team's attention, Fisher put a carrot in front of senior forward Winston Shepard, sophomore guard Trey Kell and the rest of the gang: a coast-to-coast trip to New York.
For most of the players, their first visit to the Big Apple.
"We ain't slummin'," Fisher said. "I know the history of this event. I know the prestige and pride that surrounds this event. So I will tell you, our team is coming out of their skin to be a part of it. We're very excited to be here."
So is George Washington coach Mike Lonergan, even if his squad had a much shorter trip than the other three teams.
With their campus located about 225 miles down I-95 in Washington, D.C., leading scorer Tyler Cavanaugh and the Colonials played four games in New York City this season — all at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. But they're in the NIT semifinals for the first time and haven't played at Madison Square Garden in 15 years.
"We've been to New York a lot. I'm hoping, you know, our guys are experienced and there won't be nerves — I hope," Lonergan said. "But I'm more worried about San Diego State just being so athletic and so talented and really so good defensively."
Valparaiso has also earned a reputation as one of the nation's toughest defensive teams, setting up an intriguing matchup against the high-scoring Cougars.
"They're extremely explosive on the offensive end. And so, they're going to present a lot of challenges with the shooters they have," Crusaders coach Bryce Drew said. "It's going to be a big challenge for us to kind of see how the styles collide."
BYU is sparked by senior guard Kyle Collinsworth, who holds NCAA records with six triple-doubles this season and 12 in his career.
Collinsworth said he's feeling better after losing 12 pounds recently while fighting the flu. He was scheduled to go through a full practice Monday, coach Dave Rose said.
"It was a long five days," Collinsworth said.
BYU is the only school left in the field that has won an NIT championship. The Cougars are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their 1966 title, and they also took the crown in 1951.
Valparaiso is in the semifinals for the first time, and junior forward Alec Peters is averaging a tournament-high 24.7 points (and eight rebounds) in three games. The Crusaders beat ACC opponent Florida State 81-69 and held Saint Mary's to 13 points in the second half of their 60-44 quarterfinal victory.
"Our guys have really attacked this opportunity," Drew said.
And now, just like North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament, Valparaiso is the only No. 1 seed left in the NIT.
"I like that. That's good company to be in," Drew said.