RENO, Nev. — Utah State won't have to worry about its bubble-bursting for at least another day.
Tyler Newbold took a pass from Tai Wesley and dropped in a 12-foot jump shot from the left wing with 3.1 seconds left to give the Aggies their first lead of the game since the 5:12 mark of the first half and held off any talk about brackets, bubbles or the drama associated with a gut-wrenching 71-70 win over New Mexico State.
The win gives Utah State a 29-4 record and sends them to the Western Athletic Conference championship game tonight at 8 p.m.
"Wow," was all Stew Morrill could say with his first breath during the post-game press conference.
After inhaling, he expressed his relief in getting what very well may be the win that pushes Utah State off any supposed bubble and firmly into the NCAA Tournament.
"We were in trouble at the half," Morrill said. "All we talked about was to try and win each four minute segment."
To say the Aggies were in trouble against NMSU might be a bit of an understatement.
New Mexico State erased a big early USU lead and, behind a barrage of 3-point shots, stunned the regular-season champion Aggies by taking a 47-34 lead into the locker room.
"The whole time I kept thinking this is our season," Wesley said, explaining the self-motivation he used. "I kept that thought in my head the whole second half."
That thought quickly disappeared when he took an inbound pass with eight seconds left, backed his way into the paint and slipped the ball to a wide-open Newbold on the wing after drawing three defenders.
It was virtually the same play the Aggies ran just a few seconds earlier. The first time, though, Wesley lofted up a shot that rolled off the rim.
The rebound, however, was swatted out of bounds by NMSU — giving Utah State another chance to finish their comeback and this time they made it work.
"It was kind of a broken play," Newbold said. "It wasn't what we were planning to do ... but it rattled in there. It was an awesome feeling."
It was also not the only big play Newbold came up with down the stretch.
Trailing by a point, Utah State lined up for a free throw by Hernst Laroche. The 15-footer was off target, though, and the rebound went long to NMSU's Jonathon Gibson.
Newbold reached in and grabbed hold of the ball forcing a tie-up and USU got possession with 30 seconds to play and NMSU leading 70-69, setting up the first attempt to win the game.
"Tyler Newbold is just a solid, steady and stable player," Morrill said. "He guards and passes and is a blue collar basketball player."
And Friday night, he was Utah State's big-play man.
Utah State, much like it did the night before, started the game red hot and hit its first seven shots. Unlike the quarterfinal win over Fresno State, however, the Aggies were unable to hold onto that momentum.
NMSU, once down 19-9, started hoisting 3-pointers and watching them fall into the net. A 38-15 rally gave New Mexico State a 13-point lead at the half and Utah State looked stunned by the situation they found themselves in.
But taking the game in four-minute blocks, Utah State successfully chipped away at the lead and owned the momentum for most of the second half.
"They put together some runs and made a few good shots in the second half that were clutch which is what they do," NMSU coach Marvin Menzies said. "There's a reason they are 29-4."
One big key was the Aggie defense which buckled down during the final minutes and two baskets over the last 7:16 of the game.
"In the first half, we really didn't guard," Morrill said. "In the second half we did a much better job on defense. It was a great win for us."30 comments on this story
Gary Wilkinson, the WAC player of the year, had another solid offensive night for the Aggies. The 6-foot-9 senior led all scorers with 19 points while Pooh Williams and Wesley each had 13.
"Tai Wesley was a huge factor," Wilkinson said. "He had so much confidence and was very upbeat. Tai really put us on his back tonight."
Wesley put the game in his hands.
The 6-7 sophomore had seven rebounds and seven huge assists — none, of course, bigger than the last.
"The play right before I had the shot and I missed it," Wesley said. "So coach called my number and I almost shot it, but I saw Gary and Tyler Newbold wide open and I made the pass to Tyler."
And with it, Utah State survived.