HOUSTON — What is belief?

Is belief hope? Or is it trust? Faith or work? Is it borne of promise and prayers or effort and grit? Is it something someone turns to when the chips are down, or something clung to even in good times?

For a dozen years, San Diego State’s mantra — “I believe that we will win,” a chant co-opted by its student section, the Show, from the U.S. Naval Academy — was twinged with doubt, the focus more on the first two words than the last three. So when the Aztecs found themselves down by 14 points with less than 14 minutes to go in their Final Four matchup with feisty Florida Atlantic, they had to separate the two.

This was no time for blind loyalty, for crossed fingers, for scripture and serenity. It was time to go to work. Forget the I believe part. SDSU focused on three words with which it has become so familiar over the last two decades.

“We will win.”

And they did. They did. And now they’ll play UConn for the national title.


What is work?

In basketball, individual talents and skill sets can get stretched to their limits by teams with chips on their shoulders and bounces in their steps. Work is not a wide-open 3-pointer or an easy dunk, a breakaway layup with three defenders trailing. Work is not the ball on a string or poetry in motion.

Work is nasty. It’s gritty. If anything, it’s slam poetry. Going to work is cleaning up the offensive glass and chasing down loose balls and fighting for position when the opponent is doing everything in his power to deny you an opportunity.

You don’t go to work up 10, you go to work down 14.

And that’s exactly what SDSU did.

After the Owls lengthened their lead to 14 with 13:53 to go, the Aztecs took a look at each other and decided their season would not end. To that point, FAU had out-rebounded SDSU, 9-3, in the second half, with five offensive boards. In the first half of the second half, the Aztecs trailed on the boards, 12-4. For a team that typically eschews outside shooting by relying on stout defense and adept glass-cleaning, the Aztecs were in trouble. Lose their shot, and they can adjust. Lose on the boards? That’s a chore.

So SDSU went to work.

In the final 10 minutes, the Aztecs out-rebounded the Owls, 18-9. During one stretch that spanned just more than 4 minutes, the Aztecs had 11 offensive rebounds. In one 33-second stretch, they grabbed 4 offensive boards. Even as layups caromed off the backboard and free throws went awry, SDSU cut FAU’s lead in half. Then completed the comeback, tying the game at 65 with 4:24 left, just 10 minutes after trailing by more than a dozen.

“You can’t just hope things are going to happen,” said Adam Seiko, the longest-tenured Aztec, currently playing in his sixth season. “The thing about our guys is we have faith and we play super hard. Our guys don’t take any possessions off. We did believe. We knew we could stop them in the second half and we did that.”

That is work.

“You can’t have belief without putting in the work,” long-time SDSU assistant David Velasquez said in the locker room. “You have to deserve to have that faith and trust in your teammates. Here, they work. They really believe in each other. I’m telling you, when you get to the timeouts, there’s absolutely no panic. It’s just a positive energy from this group, how they live their lives, the people they surround themselves with. This is the best group you could have.”


What is faith?

Faith is being in a huddle during a late timeout and looking around at 8 players with 3 or more years of college basketball experience, players who’ve led the Aztecs to the verge of greatness or arrived from parts unknown with big goals and big dreams. San Diego State is among the most veteran teams in the country, led by a collection of been-there, done-that seniors who’ve seen it all, including, yes, another Lamont Butler game-winner.

Just more than a month ago, in a late-February classic in New Mexico’s vaunted home floor, The Pit, Butler uncorked a 3-pointer at the buzzer, clinching a 73-71 win over the Lobos for their 6th straight win.

So when Nathan Mensah grabbed a Johnell Davis miss with 9.4 seconds left and the Aztecs down by 1 and advanced the ball to Butler, everyone on the SDSU bench believed.

When Butler drove the length of the floor deep into FAU territory, only to find his path to the basket blocked by his defender, Nick Boyd, then stopped on a dime and crossed over to his left, SDSU believed.

And when he let it fly with precisely 0.8 seconds left on the clock, SDSU believed.

And when the ball dripped through the net with 0.0 seconds left on the scoreboard, that belief was rewarded.

“Veteran leadership is the best thing you can have on a team,” Seiko said. “We have guys who are great vocally and great at leading by example.”

It wasn’t that game-winner that Seiko went back to on Saturday night.

He recalled a team meeting, called by SDSU 5th-year senior Aguek Arop, after the Aztecs beat UNLV in Las Vegas, 76-67, to improve to 11-3.

“The vets brought all the guys in, and this is when we were in first place, and we still weren’t happy,” he said. “A players’-only meeting. That shows you how seriously we take this team.”


What is trust?

Trust isn’t just loyalty to the other 14 guys in the locker room. Trust is loyalty to yourself, even in the face of doubt.

SDSU senior Matt Bradley, who struggled mightily in the Aztecs’ last three Tournament wins, shooting a combined 6-for-27 from the field for a combined 27 points, came out firing on Saturday.

He had 11 of SDSU’s first 14 points, then went cold for nearly 20 minutes of game time, before finding himself late, finishing with 21 points.

“I just felt good,” he said. “I had two bad shooting performances these last couple games, and I just got back in the gym. My teammates were encouraging me, my coaches. Spent some time praying, doing what I need to to get right. I trust myself, most importantly. I’m thankful I was in the position to come through.”

So maybe it’s all of it, then.

Belief. Work. Faith. Trust. Maybe it takes all four, in the Final Four, no less, to advance to within one win of the national championship.

I have faith that we will win.

I will work so that we will win.

I have trust that we will win.

I believe that we will win.