LAS VEGAS » Let there be no doubt: Utah State is going back to the NCAA Tournament.
The No. 23 Aggies outplayed Boise State early in both halves and held on tight for a 77-69 win last night at the Orleans Arena, clinching their ninth NCAA appearance in the last 14 years.
A 17-0 run bridging the halves was key for the top-seeded Aggies, who’ve had no problem getting to WAC tournament title games but have struggled some to close the deal. It was USU’s fifth title game in the last six years; the Aggies are 2-3 in those games.
Behind 19 points apiece from guard Brockeith Pane and forward Tai Wesley, USU (30-3) equaled the most victories in school history and was most likely getting an at-large bid even with a loss, but wasn’t about to leave that decision to the NCAA selection committee today.
USU coach Stew Morrill said he expects the Aggies to be better than an 11th seed, the highest his Logan, Utah, based team has received in eight appearances on his watch.
"There’s been pressure from Day 1 on us to live up to expectations," Morrill said. "I think (our players) lived up to them. … Right now we need to enjoy this, and the best thing is we know whether they can keep us out or in."
At least 3,500 of the crowd of 4,372 was partisan for USU. At the horn, the students piled around their heroes on the court and hoisted up Wesley, the WAC Player of the Year who made his third straight WAC All-Tournament team.
"I don’t feel like you have pressure playing almost a home game," Wesley said.
USU placed three players on the tourney team: MVP Pane, Wesley and forward Nate Bendall (16 points) to go along with Boise State guard La’Shard Anderson (18 points) and San Jose State guard Adrian Oliver.
Doubt that the Aggies can win in the NCAA Tournament has been one of the few knocks on the four-time WAC regular-season champions. But a typical efficient outing — 53.1 percent shooting against BSU’s 39.7 percent, with a 36-26 rebounding advantage — had them enjoying the moment.
"This is just part of the gravy our coaches and players are talking about," Pane said. "We’re just going to continue getting more gravy."
It was second-seeded BSU’s last crack at a WAC title after winning it all in 2008. The Broncos (20-12) leave for the Mountain West Conference after this season and must now examine their postseason options, which could be alongside Hawaii in the 24-team CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
Helped by 17 total turnovers on the normally stingy Aggies, steal-happy BSU drew within 56-54 with about 6 minutes left after trailing by 17. That was as close as it would get, as Wesley scored the next seven USU points.