Utah State settles into WAC title game
Utah State can earn a ticket to the NCAA Tournament in its first year in the WAC
RENO, Nev. » Utah State has made itself right at home in its new conference.
In its first year in the Western Athletic Conference, the Aggies took little time settling into the league, going 11-5 to place second in the regular-season standings.
Today, the Aggies will complete their inaugural run in the WAC by playing for the conference championship.
Utah State (23-7), which won the Big West tournament title in four of the last six years, advanced to today's WAC tournament championship game by hanging on for a 68-64 semifinal win over Louisiana Tech (20-12) yesterday at the Lawlor Events Center.
"It always feels good to be in the championship game, any conference, any time," USU coach Stew Morrill said. "This league has been a tremendous challenge and we're excited to be playing (today)."
The Aggies face top-seeded Nevada (26-5) for the WAC championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament today at 4 p.m. Hawaii time. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
Guard Jaycee Carroll led the Aggies with 18 points and made five of six free throws in the final 24 seconds to help ward off a frantic LaTech rally and beat the Bulldogs for the third time this season.
LaTech forward Paul Millsap scored 14 of his team-high 18 points in the second half. But the nation's leading rebounder came up with only seven, more than six off his season average, as Utah State won the rebounding battle 31-30. Millsap had just one defensive rebound in the game.
"That's the stat that jumps out at me, that we were able to stay with them on the boards," Morrill said. "I thought that was a huge part of the game."
USU forward Nate Harris finished with 13 points, and gave the Aggies a 29-25 halftime lead with a desperation shot at the buzzer. Harris grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled a couple of steps out of the key and launched a shot that hit hard off the backboard and fell through the net.
Point guard David Pak, who entered the game averaging 7.5 points, scored 14 for the Aggies, the third-ranked shooting team in the country at 50 percent.
Forward Cass Matheus had eight points and just two rebounds, but drew praise from his teammates for helping keep Millsap off the boards.
"It's a credit to the big men and the way they played (Millsap)," said Carroll, a 6-foot-2 guard who came up with six rebounds.
Though Millsap found himself surrounded by Utah State players most of the night, LaTech coach Keith Richard said the Aggies didn't do anything the Bulldogs hadn't seen before.
"Everybody's been playing this way against us," Richard said. "It's the same look, I wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning and I see it. I'm going to run it next year against somebody. I've seen it so much I'm going to run it."
While Utah State continued to shoot well and built a 52-43 lead, Louisiana Tech managed to stay close and trimmed a nine-point second-half deficit to two with 16.4 seconds left on Trey McDowell's fourth 3-pointer of the game. But Carroll iced the game from the free-throw line.
The Bulldogs made their first appearance in the WAC tournament semifinals since joining the league in 2001 and may have been a bit heavy-legged after traveling to Reno directly from Honolulu following their win over Hawaii last Saturday.
"Fatigue set in, frustration set in, but you have to play through it," said Millsap, who still shot 8-for-10 from the field, blocked five shots and came up with five steals.
After the game, Richard was adamant his team will play in the National Invitation Tournament.
"I think we're in the NIT. We'd better be, or we're pulling out of this league tomorrow," Richard said. "I know we've done enough. We'll look forward to that call Sunday night."
No. 24 Nevada 70, New Mexico St. 59
New Mexico State lost its starting forwards, and saw a shot at upsetting the top-seeded Wolf Pack slip away in the second half of their semifinal matchup.
NMSU (16-14) fought back from a 14-point first-half deficit to tie the game at 44-44 with 11:50 left in the game. But forward Tyrone Nelson, the Aggies' leading scorer, left with a hand injury. David Fisher was ejected with 10:49 left after being whistled for a flagrant foul after getting tangled up with Nevada forward Nick Fazekas.
The Wolf Pack (26-5) pulled away from there and will attempt to win their second WAC championship in three years.
"Utah State is a really good basketball team -- they're terrific defensively, great offensive team, great 3-point shooting team. There's a reason they have as many wins as they do," Nevada coach Mark Fox said.
Nevada guard Marcelus Kemp scored a game-high 25 points and Fazekas scored 12 of his 20 points in the first 4:30 of the ballgame to spur the Wolf Pack to the early lead.
NMSU guard Elijah Ingram led the Aggies with 17 points as NMSU played with four guards for much of the game after losing their top big men.
Fisher had 10 points and seven rebounds before being tossed. Nelson had eight points and three boards.
"Over the course of a game anything can happen, so the other players have to step up," Ingram said of losing the forwards.