LAS VEGAS » Watch your back, Utah State.
The former whipping boys of the Western Athletic Conference have grown up.
Eighth-seeded San Jose State advanced past the WAC tournament quarterfinals for the first time yesterday with a 74-68 upset of fourth-seeded Idaho. Behind dynamic guard play and an underrated front line, who’s to discount another Spartans milestone against top-seeded USU in the semifinals today?
Not SJSU coach George Nessman or assassin guard Adrian Oliver, who exuded confidence after another bevy of tough baskets that he’s making look routine at the Orleans Arena.
Oliver, the nation’s third-leading scorer at nearly 25 points per game, broke the SJSU single-season scoring record with 28 points against the Vandals. Freshman guard Keith Shamburger matched that output as the two combined to shoot 18-for-35 from the floor, including a blistering 12-for-19 on 3-pointers.
"We know what we can do and believe in ourselves," said Nessman, a sixth-year coach. "That’s what confidence is. There’s not a person in our locker room that’s surprised that we’re here."
Hawaii was downed in Wednesday’s first round, 75-74, courtesy of an Oliver dagger jumper with 5 seconds left. The Spartans (17-14) preserved their poise in close games yesterday by seizing control after UI rallied to tie it at 68 with 3 minutes left.
From there, the Spartans forced three turnovers and four misses on the normally composed Vandals to win convincingly. SJSU earned its most wins since 1981.
Longtime fans of WAC basketball know the above is far from typical for San Jose State, which for years had the word "lowly" tagged in front of it by default in anything except a SJSU press release. This is a program that hasn’t once received better than the fifth seed since joining the WAC in 1996 and was 2-13 in WAC tournament games until this week.
But with lethal shooting and attitude, the Spartans are busting notions like a match-up zone. Claiming the No. 23 USU Aggies (28-3) as another victim would go down in WAC lore. USU plays its first game of the tourney today because of the double-bye format for the top two seeds.
"We know Utah State’s top dog in this conference as far as record-wise. That just adds even more juice to us," Oliver said. "At this point, we know how to manage our confidence. Winning two games the first two days, that only helps us. I feel like we have an advantage, like I said before this, on Utah State because" — Oliver paused — "we’re not tired, we’re just warmed up. So Utah State’s going to come in here cold, and we’re going to fight to the end."
Idaho (18-13) accepted an invitation to play in the 24-team CollegeInsider.com Tournament immediately after the game, joining Hawaii in the field. CIT selection committee chair Riley Wallace, the former UH coach, said after SJSU’s win that the Spartans would also merit consideration for a berth by knocking off USU. It would be the Spartans’ first postseason game since ’96.
The last eighth seed to make it this far in the WAC tournament was Boise State in 2005, when the Broncos got all the way to the championship game.
To match that feat, Oliver and his backcourt mates Shamburger and Justin Graham will have to hit plenty more tough shots against one of the best defensive teams in the country; USU swept the Spartans home-and-home in December and January. But confidence, even after a 5-11 WAC regular season, can be a powerful thing.
"We just stayed the course, we believe in ourselves, we believe in our guys. And we’ve never wavered from that," Nessman said.
No. 3 New Mexico State 66, No. 6 Nevada 60
NMSU guard Gordo Castillo broke a 54-all tie with a three-point play with 2:56 to go and the defending WAC tournament champions held on in a grinder game to enter today’s semifinals against No. 2 Boise State.
Forward Troy Gillenwater, who scored a team-high 18 points, helped ice the win for NMSU (16-16) with a 3-pointer with 1:52 to go. Castillo went 10-for-10 from the foul line, including four key makes in the final 32 seconds.
"I was really proud of the way my guys fought, especially in what we call ‘winning time,’ the last 4 or 5 minutes of a close game," NMSU coach Marvin Menzies said. "Disappointed in some of the statistics, but at the end of the day, who cares in this stage of the season?"
Guard Malik Story scored a game-high 22 points for the Wolf Pack (13-19).