Tai Wesley scored 19 points after a quiet start and No. 23 Utah State earned its second straight trip to the NCAA tournament, beating Boise State 77-69 in the Western Athletic Conference championship game Saturday night.
Utah State (30-3) was solid throughout in its fifth WAC title game in six years, getting big contributions from Brian Green (12 points) and Nate Bendall (16 points) at the start of each half.
Wesley took over down the stretch, scoring nine points in the final 5 minutes to help the Aggies match a school record for wins and set off a wild celebration with the student section at midcourt.
Boise State (20-12) twice came back from double-digit deficits to make it close, but will now have to hope for some generosity from the NCAA tournament selection committee for its first berth since 2008 — which might be a longshot coming out of the weak WAC.
La’Shard Anderson led the Broncos with 18 points.
Utah State wrapped up the WAC regular-season title early and had a decent win against Saint Mary’s, building a strong case to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Aggies didn’t want to gamble on their trip to The Strip, though, hoping to earn the automatic bid instead of sweating it out on selection Sunday like they had to do in two of the previous three seasons.
Utah State managed to get an NCAA invite last season despite losing in the WAC tournament, but wasn’t so fortunate in 2007-08 after winning the regular-season title and losing in the second round to Boise State.
The Aggies took the first step in the semifinals on Friday, pulling out a four-point win over San Jose State despite struggling offensively most of the night.
Utah State had no trouble with Boise State during the regular season, winning by nine in Idaho, then busting the Broncos with a 28-point shellacking at a charged-up Spectrum.
Boise State has been a different team since then, though.
Embarrassed by the loss in Logan, the Broncos regrouped and refocused, peeling off seven straight wins to close out the regular season and earn their highest seeding since joining the WAC in 2001-02. Boise State had to shake off the rust a little after earning a double-bye in the tournament, but turned it on quickly to rout New Mexico State in the semifinals to earn another shot at the Aggies.
The Broncos were intent on not letting Wesley beat them in the first half, doubling him immediately on every touch in the post. He had no trouble whipping passes out to the wings for open shots, particularly to Green, who had eight points as the Aggies built a 12-point lead by the midpoint.
Boise State wouldn’t let them run away with it just yet.
The Broncos, after missing their first seven 3-point attempts, hit three over the next few minutes, then Anderson took over, scoring 13 points in the half to keep Boise State within two.
Utah State opened the second half just like the first, this time turning to Bendall, who scored eight points in the first 3 minutes during a 12-0 run that put the Aggies up 47-33.
Boise State again chipped away at the lead, pulling within two with just under 5 minutes left, but never made it all the way back.
The Aggies kept hitting shots and free throws down the stretch, giving them time to celebrate in the closing seconds as they headed to the program’s 20th NCAA tournament appearance.
WOMEN: FRESNO STATE EDGES LOUISIANA TECH
Fresno State has what it calls special teams, a football-inspired group that comes into games during specific situations.
Freshman reserve guard Bree Farley is a part of the team that comes in for late-half and late-game situations, in part because of her ability to score at the basket.
Though Farley occasionally misses the shot in practice, she came through at the biggest moment of the season, sending the Bulldogs into the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight season.
Tournament MVP Jaleesa Ross scored 17 of her 23 points in the second half to help Fresno State withstand a big Louisiana Tech rally and Farley had the crowning moment with a turnaround with less than a second left, lifting the Bulldogs to a 78-76 win over the Lady Techsters Saturday in the Western Athletic Conference title game.
"I really thought that it would lip out," said Farley, who missed her two previous shots and played just 9 minutes. "We’ve been practicing it, but honestly, in training sometimes I miss it. I’m happy that it worked out when it mattered."
Fresno State (25-7) lost to the Lady Techsters in last year’s WAC title game and again in a pair of overtime games during the regular season.
Fighting back and forth with their rival and nemesis, the Bulldogs led by six late, but allowed LaTech to tie it on Whitney Jones’ stepback 3-pointer with 4 seconds left. Looking at the possibility of a third straight overtime game against the Lady Techsters, Fresno State dribbled the ball to midcourt and called timeout with 2.9 seconds left.
The Bulldogs got the ball into Farley down in the post and, with a quick spin and a kiss off the glass, she reserved Fresno State’s spot in the NCAA tournament.
A reserve guard who averages 4.6 points with the season on the line?
That’s just how Fresno State coach Adrian Wiggins drew it up.
"We worked on that play all year; we worked on it before we went to the WAC tournament," Wiggins said. "I know you won’t believe me, but that’s exactly what happened."
Farley’s moment briefly spoiled Louisiana Tech’s impressive season.
The Lady Techsters (24-7) rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit with a huge run to open the second half, then fought back again down the stretch after falling behind by six with just over a minute left.
LaTech had a defensive breakdown and couldn’t stop Farley, but should have a good enough resume to reach the NCAA tournament for the 27th time. Adrienne Johnson led LaTech with 22 points and Jones had 18.
"If you took a look at what we’ve done, how could you leave us out?" LaTech coach Teresa Weatherspoon said. "I think our kids have done a tremendous job all season long. They fought, scratched, clawed and if you watched this game, how could you leave us out?"
Louisiana Tech won its eighth regular-season WAC title in 10 years by going 15-1 and outlasted Nevada in the tournament semifinals on Friday for the program’s 1,000th victory, joining Tennessee as the only schools to reach the milestone.
Fresno State entered the WAC tournament on an eight-game winning streak to finish a game behind the Lady Techsters, then rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat Utah State by 10 in the semifinals.
Louisiana Tech swept the season series between the teams, though it wasn’t easy.
In the first game on Jan. 13 in Fresno, the Lady Techsters made numerous mistakes late in regulation to give Taylor Thompson a shot at a tying 3-point attempt with less than a second left, then needed a 3-pointer by Brietta Thomas with 2.6 seconds left in the third overtime to beat the Bulldogs by two.
A little over two weeks later, Johnson hit 1 of 2 free throws with 3.5 seconds left in regulation to tie it, then scored six of her 26 points in overtime for a six-point win.
It was the third time in four games the WAC’s top two teams had gone to overtime — so, yeah, the WAC title game figured to be close, too.
"We have a big rivalry with them," Johnson said. "We knew it was going to be a tough game."
It certainly was early on during a sometimes-raggedy first half filled with missed layups, passes that went out of bounds and bodies hitting the deck.
Fresno State finally started to find an offensive rhythm late in the half, gradually building the lead to 37-26.
Louisiana Tech didn’t take long to close the gap.
Forcing turnovers and getting out in transition, the Lady Techsters opened the second half with a 21-4 run, going up 47-41 on a driving layup by Thomas with about 14 minutes left.
Fresno State finally righted itself behind Ross, who hit three 3-pointers to help the Bulldogs pull back ahead by six with just under 5 minutes left.
LaTech pulled to 76-73 on a putback by Kiara Young with 19 seconds left, then forced a turnover by tying up Ross in the corner. The Lady Techsters missed on a couple of chances before the loose ball came out to Young, who’s 3 was upheld by a video review.
Fresno State took the ball to midcourt and called timeout with 2.9 seconds left, then got the ball into Farley, who’s bank shot set off a wild celebration in front of the Bulldogs’ bench.
"It was one of those things that was so neat because we had worked so hard on it," Farley said. "I’m glad it worked out."