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Reno, Nev. » Part two of the season no one expected came to a triumphant conclusion Saturday night. Part three begins late next week when Utah State travels who knows where for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Aggies' convincing 72-62 victory against Nevada for the Western Athletic Conference tournament championship on the Wolf Pack's home court not only sent USU streaking into March Madness, but teams on the "bubble" throughout the college landscape are also breathing a bit easier.
In typical Utah State style, its school record 30th win was the result of balanced scoring, controlling the tempo and an aggressive defense that left Nevada wondering where its offense had gone to. Granted, the Wolf Pack (21-12) missed plenty of open shots, but the Aggies were also responsible for allowing Nevada to shoot 31 percent.
The victory also came on the same Lawlor Events Center court where a couple weeks ago the Wolf Pack thoroughly trounced USU.
"Our players were excited to redeem themselves," said USU coach Stew Morrill, who will take his sixth team in 10 years to a NCAA Tournament. "We were in a real good mind set [the entire tournament]."
Utah State could not have asked for a better start. In the opening 10 minutes, Nevada made just two of its first 19 shots and trailed 21-4.
The Wolf Pack shaved the Aggie lead to five at the half, but tournament Most Valuable Player Gary Wilkinson scored six of his game-high 21 points during a two-minute stretch early in the second half to push the lead back to 13.
From that point, USU continued to push the margin until it reached 19. Down the stretch, with Nevada forced to foul, the Aggies made 11 of 14 free throws.
"We just got outplayed," Nevada coach Mark Fox said. "It wasn't our night."
Fox dismissed the notion that his team was tight to start, saying that having played its second game in less than 24 hours took its toll.
"We couldn't finish," he said.
Again, USU's defense had a lot to do with Nevada's problems. Everywhere UN guard Armon Johnson turned, Aggie defender Pooh Williams was in his face. Johnson finished with 20, but 10 came late when the Wolf Pack began bombing away trying to get close.
Williams, who also scored 12 points, added the exclamation to the USU victory by slamming home a 30-foot alley-oop pass from Wilkinson.
"That's not our style," Wilkinson said. "That was the way the game was going."
Jared Quayle, Tyler Newbold and Tai Wesley, all named the the all-tournament team, finished in double figures. Quayle also grabbed 10 rebounds.
"This is a lot different than Western Wyoming," Quayle said.
In Short » USU improves to a school-record 30-4 and advances to its sixth NCAA Tournament in 10 seasons with balanced scoring and tough defense.
Key Moment » Utah State jumps out to a 21-4 lead.
Key Stat » Nevada shoots 31 percent from the floor.