Utah State beats Nevada 72-62 for WAC championship
RENO, Nev. (AP)—Utah State coach Stew Morrill doesn’t have to worry anymore if his Aggies’ 30-4 record is good enough to get them into the NCAA tournament.
The Aggies made sure they’d be in the field of 65 with a 72-62 win over Nevada in the Western Athletic Conference championship on Saturday night.
Gary Wilkinson scored 21 points and Jared Quayle and Tai Wesley each had double-doubles.
Quayle had 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Wesley 14 points and 11 rebounds for the top-seeded Aggies, who held Nevada scoreless for the first 6 1/2 minutes and denied Wolf Pack scoring leader Luke Babbitt a field goal until 16:24 was left in the game.
The tournament title gave the WAC’s regular season champs their sixth trip to the NCAA tournament in 10 years, but first since 2006.
“The one thing I told our guys coming into this tournament is that we had to treat this like the only way we were going to the NCAAs is if we won this,” Morrill said. “Before we came here I kept hearing, “We’re in, we’re in.” Then I heard we had to win one and we’re in. Then I heard that we had to win in the semifinals to get in. Well, all I know is, we’re in now.”
Armon Johnson scored 17 of his 20 points in the second half while Babbitt, a freshman, finished with only eight points on 3-of-12 shooting for second-seeded Nevada (21-12), which made only two of its first 21 attempts from the field and shot 30 percent.
Nevada coach Mark Fox said Babbitt had an injured back.
“We got outplayed. It wasn’t our night,” said Fox, whose team watched five of its first six shots roll around the rim before falling off.
“We had a lot of little, easy looks at the basket that we did not finish. At one point it was 10-0 and it should have been 10-10. We just didn’t finish,” he said. “Fatigue, certainly, was probably a part of that. Being young physically was probably more of a factor. We just couldn’t physically answer the bell very well with a third game in three days and a second one in under 24 hours.”
Trailing 28-23 at the half, the closest Nevada came in the second half was when Johnson’s two-handed dunk made it 29-25 with 18:38 remaining.
Williams, who finished with 12 points, and Tyler Newbold hit consecutive 3-pointers and Wilkinson scored on a hook on an 8-0 run to push the lead to 38-27.
Joey Shaw made a 15-footer but Wilkinson answered with a jump hook and a 19-footer to spark another 12-0 run that put the Aggies ahead 49-32 with 9:40 left. Johnson converted a 3-point play but Quayle nailed a 3-point goal and Wesley tipped in a rebound for a 54-35 lead.
Lyndale Burleson, Malik Cooke and Babbitt made consecutive 3-pointers to pull within 54-44. But Utah State ran off another six straight points to go up 61-44 on Wilkinson’s basket inside with 2:47 left.
Cooke made a 3-pointer, then Johnson made two 3s around a three-point play to cut it to 66-56 with 1:18 on the clock. But Wilkinson made two free throws and Williams slammed home Newbold’s alley-oop pass to make it 70-59.
The two teams split two games during the regular season with Nevada beat Utah State 84-71 in Reno on Feb. 28.
“To win on their home court is unbelievable,” Morrill said. “We’ve been in the WAC four years and we’ve been to three championship games and all three have been on the other team’s home court. I just think this was finally our time.”
Utah State raced to a 13-0 lead as Nevada missed its first 10 shots before Ahyaro Phillips’ tip-in with 13:30 left in the first half.
Shaw scored to cut the lead to 15-4 but Quayle, Wesley and Wilkinson made three more baskets to put the Aggies up 21-4 midway through the half.
The Wolf Pack’s dry spell continued until Johnson converted a 3-point play to spark an 11-0 run capped by Phillips’ tip in to pull within 21-15.
Utah State had its own 5-minute scoring drought until Newbold’s basket 4:13 before the half. But Shaw matched it then turned a steal into a 3-point play when he was fouled on a layup to cut the Aggies’ lead to 25-21.
Utah State’s Stavon Williams added a 3-point goal at 1:10 but Nevada’s Dario Hunt made two free throws just before the half to make it 28-23.
Cooke finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and six steals while Shaw had 10 points.