CBKB: Utah State holds off Spartans 58-54 in WAC semis
AP Basketball Writer
LAS VEGAS (AP) – Utah State was harassed into one missed shot after another and allowed a supposedly overmatched team to hang around until the end, even giving them one final shot at the upset.
When it was over, the Aggies smiled, wiped their brow, then tried to put it behind them. After a season like no other at Utah State, they’re aiming a little higher than the WAC semifinals.
Grinding every step of the way, No. 23 Utah State made just enough plays down the stretch and watched as Adrian Oliver’s long 3-point attempt rimmed out in the closing seconds, pulling out a 58-54 win Friday night that sends the Aggies to another Western Athletic Conference tournament championship game.
“We’re happy we got out with a win, but, not to beat around the bush, we’re here to win the whole thing and make some noise in the NCAA tournament,” said Wesley, who had 14 points, 12 rebounds and two game-sealing free throws with 5 seconds left.
Top-seeded Utah State (29-3) came into the WAC tournament looking to boost its NCAA tournament credentials. The Aggies won their fourth straight regular-season title, but were still considered to be a toss-up bet to get into the field of 68.
Utah State took one step by holding off the gritty Spartans to get into the WAC title game for the fifth time in six years. The Aggies have a chance to leave no doubt on Saturday by beating Boise State, which beat New Mexico 81-63 in the other semifinal.
“I don’t care what all the bracketologists say, if they’re not the tournament now, the whole thing is rigged and just a big mess,” San Jose State coach George Nessman said.
Eighth-seeded San Jose State (17-15) gave Utah State everything it could handle in the semifinals despite playing for the third straight day.
The Spartans hounded the Aggies defensively, holding them to 37 percent shooting, including 3 of 14 from 3-point range. Even when they fell behind, seemingly done for the season, they never let Utah State run away with it.
They even had a final shot at the win.
It came after Wesley missed the front end of a 1-and-1.
His team trailing by two, Oliver, who hit the game-winner in the tournament opener against Hawaii, had the ball near halfcourt and yo-yoed it until the closing seconds. Opting to go for the win instead of the tie, he launched a 30-foot shot – a good shot for a shooter like him – over Tyler Newbold’s outstretched arm that was right on line. The ball dipped in for a second, then rimmed out with 8 seconds left.
Wesley snared the rebound and hit the free throws this time, ending San Jose State’s impressive run at the WAC tournament.
“When I got the ball, I started smiling because I had a feeling something special was about to happen,” said Oliver, who led the Spartans with 16 points. “The ball just went in and out. You make some and you miss some, and tonight I missed it.”
Utah State’s fourth straight regular-season WAC title came handily, a 15-1 run that put it five games ahead of second-place Boise State.
The Aggies set a school record for regular-season victories by winning 26 of their final 27 games and were ranked the final seven weeks of the regular season, their longest streak in 40 years.
The standard-setting season gave Utah State a double-bye into the semifinals, while San Jose State had to go through two grueling games to get there.
The eighth-seeded Spartans made a surprising run into their first WAC semis, beating higher seeds Hawaii and Idaho behind the strong guard play of Oliver, Shamburger and Justin Graham.
San Jose State’s road figured to get much harder against Utah State, a team led by six seniors and Wesley, the WAC player of the year.
The Aggies swept the two games during the regular season: by seven in Logan behind Pane’s stat-sheet-filling game, and again by 19 on the road when reserve guard Brian Green scored a career-high 25 points.
In the third matchup, Utah State had hoped San Jose State would have tired legs after playing the previous two days, and coach Stew Morrill freely rotated players in, using nine in the first half.
The Spartans didn’t seem to mind.
With Oliver and Keith Shamburger again leading the way – they had 28 points each against Idaho – San Jose State kept it tight in the first half, trailing by just four after holding the Aggies to 12-of-31 shooting from the field.
Utah State tried to pull away early in the second half, building a 44-34 lead, but the Spartans weren’t ready to cash in their season just yet.
San Jose State, after shooting poorly to open the half, started dropping a few here and there while continuing to play tight defense, pulling to 50-49 with just over 8 minutes left.
The Spartans continued to hang around, getting within two on Oliver’s hard drive with 51 seconds left, and had a chance to win it after Wesley’s missed free throw.
Utah State had planned to send a double-team at Oliver once he got into shooting position, but it didn’t get there in time. Fortunately for the Aggies, the shot rimmed out, giving them a shot at bigger rewards.
“We’ve been in championship games a lot of times,” Morrill said. “Credit to our players. We know it’s going to be a challenge. I think we’ll free up and shoot better tomorrow night.”