RENO — Pop.
Once considered a lock by virtually every bracket prediction expert in the nation, Utah State finds itself right back on the bubble thanks to a 69-63 loss to New Mexico State in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament title game.
Now, USU will spend a nervous Sunday morning and afternoon sweating it out with the rest of the teams hoping a merciful NCAA Tournament selection committee places the 27-7 Aggies in the bracket after all is said and done.
"When you look at our body of work," Morrill, noting a regular-season conference championship, a just-snapped 17-game win streak and an RPI that will still be in the low 30s when the committee meets to make its final decisions, said "we should be in."
Morrill, of course, is not on the selection committee. And while his opinion of the team he coaches might very well be dead on, Utah State knows all too well the pain of being left out of the Big Dance thanks to a championship-game meltdown.
Saturday night, in front of a mostly pro-USU crowd, the Aggies in blue watched as a 51-46 lead with eight minutes to play evaporated down the stretch as a weary team of Aggies in red refused to wilt.
"We knew it was going to be a war," NMSU coach Marvin Menzies said. "But we knew we were going to be in a position to win the war."
The war did not go according to gameplan for Utah State, though.
Expecting a tired NMSU team after their emotionally draining semifinal win, Utah State got some of its energy taken away early when star forward Tai Wesley was sent to the sideline with a broken nose.
With Wesley unable to stay on the court — he re-entered the game a few times only to be forced back to the bench because the bleeding would not stop — the Aggies were missing a key cog to their offensive sets.
That, however, was not the reason Utah State lost, Morrill said.
New Mexico State, he pointed out, simply played better down the stretch than Utah State did.
"They just made a few more shots than we did," Morrill said. "Certainly, they deserved to win."
Instead of tiring down the stretch as many expected, NMSU (22-11) blistered the Aggies' defense — long its strongest weapon in winning — with a 62.1 percent shooting effort in the second half.
Utah State's late lead, fueled by five quick points from Brian Green, was quickly erased as Jahmar Young began to get hot.
Young was named the tournament MVP after scoring 19 points, including 12 in the second half, and providing the answer to virtually every offensive run USU had.
"They've got a lot of weapons," Morrill said. "They just kept answering every run. They have a team that has a lot of guys that can make plays."
In the second half, that was very evident as Young was complimented by Troy Gillenwater (15 points) and Jonathan Gibson (14 points) to knock the WAC kings off their throne.
Jared Quayle was aggressive from the opening tipoff and led all scorers with 25 points. Wesley added 13 points and 12 rebounds, while Nate Bendall added 16 for Utah State.
But aside from the brief flurry from Green, the Aggies got little help from the other wing players.
Pooh Willliams was scoreless on 0-of-4 shooting. Tyler Newbold, likewise, did not score and missed both shots he took, and Jaxon Myaer also failed to put a point on the board in two minutes of action. All told, the Aggie foursome scored only seven points (all from Green) on 3-of-16 shooting.
"We missed some shots going down the stretch that we really needed," Quayle said.
As a result, the Aggies are now playing a game they are quite familiar with but had no interest in being a participant.
With relatively few strong candidates left on the bubble, many national bracket predictions still have USU in the field of 65. The loss, however, will have a big impact on Utah State's seeding and first-round matchup.
Still, Morrill is hopeful that he'll get some good news today at 4 p.m. when the brackets are revealed.
"If we don't get in, it makes it really tough on mid-major leagues," he said. "I mean, what do you need to do to get in?"
The WAC is currently the No. 10-rated conference according to RPI rankings.
That, Morrill said, should be a plus on USU's resume.
"For schools like us to win 17 games in a row, win the league outright by three games, lose in the final to a good team, our RPI is better than a lot of schools being talked about ..." he said. "I mean, is our league a one-bid league no matter what?"
The answer to that question will come at 4 p.m.
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