Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press
RENO, Nev. — Remember all those questions about 'if' Utah State would get into the NCAA Tournament? Well, scratch them all.
Behind a ferocious defense that shut the vaunted Nevada offense down for most of the game, Utah State cruised to an easy win over the host Wolf Pack to win the Western Athletic Conference title with a 72-62 victory Saturday night.
The win gives the Aggies a 30-4 record and all sorts of momentum as they wait to learn not the if, but the where, who and when of their NCAA Tournament appearance.
"We're going to enjoy Selection Sunday," Aggie coach Stew Morrill said, "and not have to fret."
While Utah State's at-large worthiness has been debated for the better part of two months by so-called experts across the country, Morrill said he chose to approach this year's WAC tourney the way he did the Big West tournaments — and not leave anything up to a selection committee holed up in an Indianapolis conference room.
"You know what, we're in," Morrill said, "and it's a wonderful feeling."
It's also getting to be a familiar feeling for the Aggies who have been in the Big Dance six of the past 10 seasons and have been invited to the NIT the other four years.
Saturday night in the Lawlor Events Center, Utah State never trailed and aside from a brief rally at the end of the first half, was never truly threatened by the Wolf Pack.
"We got outplayed," Nevada coach Mark Fox stated matter-of-factly after the game.
And at no point was that more evident than the first 10 minutes of the game.
Utah State stormed out to a 13-0 lead as Nevada couldn't buy a bucket on its home court. The Wolf Pack missed their first 10 shots before finally getting onto the scoreboard with 13:32 left in the half on an offensive rebound tip by Ahyaro Phillips.
"They missed some shots and things went our way," Morrill said. "That's what it takes to win in a game like this."
The Aggies' lead grew to as large as 17 at 21-4 10 minutes into the game as Nevada's shooting woes continued. The Pack were just 2-of-22 at the time.
But, as was the case in many games in the WAC tourney, no lead — no matter how large — was safe.
USU's shooting cooled off, Nevada's picked up and before long the score was 28-23 at the half.
"We talked about that at half time," USU senior Gary Wilkinson said. "Our offense is always going to be there ... tonight, every time we came back out (from the huddle) every one of us was focused on stopping them."
It worked incredibly well.
With both teams playing their third game in as many nights, fatigue settled in. Nevada, however, was the team blaming the schedule for its woes.
"Fatigue was certainly part of that," Fox said of his team's inability to fight back. "We didn't answer the bell with our third games in three days.
"I don't think there's any question that their physical maturity was a factor in the game."
Wilkinson, who was named tournament MVP lead the way for USU with 21 points while Jared Quayle and Tai Wesley both posted double-doubles to shut down the Wolf Pack.
"The flow of the game was with us," Quayle said. "I couldn't really sense their fatigue."
Perhaps not, but Utah State did not falter and calmly rebuilt its lead, taking a 42-29 advantage with 13:11 to play on a 19-foot jumper by Wilkinson.
USU's lead continued to grow and was 16 points with 1:43 to play.
Nevada shot just 30.7 percent while Utah State pulled away with a balmy 60 percent in the second half and 50 percent overall.
And, after the game, Utah State's players — who had been keeping a tally of each win throughout the season on the locker room message board — handed the marker to Morrill and allowed him to mark the number 30 for all to see and celebrate.
"He deserved it," Wilkinson said.
"It's kind of unreal right now to me," Morrill said. "They allowed me to write the 30. That was awful nice of them."
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