Utah State headed to NCAAs

Teams on the bubble for a berth in the NCAA Tournament so badly wanted a Utah State victory Saturday night.

But Boise State had other ideas, twice rallying to make No. 23 Utah State earn the Western Athletic Conference championship and automatic bid to the NCAAs, which begin this week.

Utah State finally outlasted Boise State, making just enough plays late to win 77-69 before a heavily pro-Aggies crowd who stormed the floor at Orleans Arena.

Those fans entered the building with large smiles, no doubt overjoyed over rival Brigham Young’s loss in the Mountain West Conference Tournament championship earlier in the day at the Thomas & Mack Center.

There was little pressure on Utah State entering the WAC final. The Aggies were headed to the NCAAs anyway. They now are 30-3 with an RPI of 18, so it’s a matter of seed and location when the selections are announced today.

"The best thing is there is no way they can keep us out, and we’re excited about that," Aggies coach Stew Morrill said.

No one wanted to speculate on the seed the Aggies would receive, but Utah State forward Tai Wesley said he hoped to wear home "white uniforms" signifying the higher seed.

Boise State probably is headed to the National Invitation Tournament. Had the Broncos won, they would’ve taken away an NCAA bubble spot.

The Broncos are nearing their final days as WAC members before heading to the Mountain West.

They take momentum into their new league, having rebounded from a 15-17 record to go 20-12 this season under first-year coach Leon Rice.

"That’s a heck of a basketball league," Rice said of the Mountain West. "The Mountain West challenge is for another day. The way these guys finished, it’s great momentum for our program. This team got better and better as the year went on, and that was our goal.

"We ran into a really good team tonight, and a team that you have to play your absolute best against."

That team, Utah State, was led by Wesley and Brockeith Pane, who each scored 19 points. Wesley also had nine rebounds, but Pane was named the tournament Most Valuable Player.

Teammate Nate Bendall scored 16 points.

Utah State appeared to be on its way to an easy victory by taking a 24-12 lead midway through the first half. But the Broncos stormed back, outscoring the Aggies 21-6 to go in front 33-30 with 2:16 left.

Pane broke the momentum and gave Utah State a 35-33 halftime lead with a 19-footer and a driving layup for a three-point play with 3.1 seconds left.

"Brockeith is a player (who) can take over when he wants," Wesley said. "When he gets aggressive and pushes the ball, he’s hard to stop."

The Aggies made 53.1 percent of their shots, compared to 39.7 percent for Boise State, but Utah State had 17 turnovers to keep the Broncos in contention.

"They cause chaos with their pressure and getting steals," Morrill said. "They do that to everybody.

"We made the plays when we had to."

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914.

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