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San Jose State runs out of its new WAC magic

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LAS VEGAS » Adrian Oliver’s strategy? Duh, winning!

With heavy underdog San Jose State trailing Utah State by two with time expiring, the Spartans star eschewed the tie and pulled up for a potential game-winning 3-pointer with 8 seconds left. A monumental upset was not to be, however, as Oliver’s 27-footer from the top of the arc rimmed out and the top-seeded Aggies held on, 58-54, in a semifinal of the Western Athletic Conference tournament last night.

The eighth-seeded Spartans paid no heed to the boisterous Utah State fans — which made up most of the crowd of about 7,000 — or weary legs from winning on consecutive days just to get to the semis. They traded shots with the heavyweight early and hung around to the finish.

No. 23 Utah State, the four-time WAC regular-season champion, rode a six-game winning streak into the Orleans Arena but was perhaps fighting some rust because of the new double-bye format benefiting the top two seeds. The Aggies (29-3) had to sweat out their first game of the tourney but still advanced to their sixth WAC championship game in seven years. They’ll play Boise State for the WAC title and automatic NCAA Tournament berth at 5 tonight on ESPN2.

When Utah State forward Tai Wesley missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 29 seconds left, Oliver took the ball from a teammate and grinned for all to see. The nation’s third-leading scorer was getting flashbacks to the opening round two nights prior, when he beat Hawaii with a jumper over Trevor Wiseman with 5 seconds left.

"I was happy to be in that position again," Oliver said. "I was smiling because I knew, I had a feeling that something special was going to happen. But the ball just went in and out. You make some, you miss some. Tonight I just missed it."

Wesley, the WAC player of the year, redeemed himself with the clinching free throws with 5 seconds left after nearly giving the game away with two 1-and-1 front-end misses in the final 1:52.

"We shot ourselves in the foot a few times when we could have made it a little easier," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "But all the credit in the world to them for the tournament they had. They had a great shot at beating us tonight. Proud to get out of here with a win."

Utah State guard Tyler Newbold, an All-WAC defender, hounded Oliver into a 6-for-19 outing. Oliver had 16 points, nine below his average. Despite that, he was inches away from sending San Jose State to its first WAC title game.

In a grind of a game favoring the Aggies, the favorite was helped by four dubious technical free throws. First, San Jose State coach George Nessman was T’d up for taking off his necktie in the first half. Then, in the second period, Spartans guard Justin Graham was whistled for screaming at the air after a big block on Wesley. San Jose State was within four points each time.

Said Nessman: "I can’t comment, other than this: I haven’t gotten a technical foul in the last five years."

Technically the Aggies won, but in the long haul the Spartans could be the big winners of this tournament. An impressive three-day run ended in respectable fashion.

San Jose State, at 17-15, awaits word whether it will join fellow WAC tourney victims Hawaii and Idaho in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament next week.

"In the bigger picture, I’m really proud of the progress our program has made," Nessman said. "We’re at a brand-new place for San Jose State basketball."

Boise State 81, New Mexico State 63

Six Broncos scored in double figures to lead Boise State back to the WAC championship game for the first time since 2008. Senior guard La’Shard Anderson was chief among them with 16 points and nine assists.

Boise State (20-11) got there in Leon Rice’s first year as coach. New Mexico State (16-17) fell behind by 20 points midway through the second half and never recovered. It was the Aggies’ first losing season since 2004-05.

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