LAS VEGAS — Teams from Texas are taking over the Western Athletic Conference basketball tournament, and one of the victims Thursday was Utah State, which lost to UT Arlington 83-78 at Orleans Arena.
Earlier in the day, the top two seeds in the tourney, Louisiana Tech and Denver, were shocked by No. 9 seed UTSA and No. 7 seed Texas State. It was a golden opportunity for the Aggies to perhaps get to the finals and possibly even win and get an unexpected NCAA berth, but they couldn’t pull off a victory.
“They’ve gotten us three times so you’ve got to say they’re the better team,’’ said USU coach Stew Morrill after losing for the third time to the Mavericks this year. “We shot a high percentage, but we turned it over too much. It was frustrating that we came all the way back and couldn’t finish it off.’’
The loss eliminates the Aggies (21-10) from the WAC tournament and leaves them to await a possible invitation to a postseason tournament — other than the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a great thing for us all to advance, but who would ever have expected that?’’ UTA coach Scott Cross said of having three Texas teams advance to the second round.
Kevin Butler led the Mavericks with 23 points, including a big steal and layup in the final seconds when the Aggies were trying to put up a tying 3-pointer.
Karol Gruszecki added 17 points, while Jordan Reves and Cameron Catlett added 12 points apiece.
The Aggies had a balanced attack led by Jarred Shaw with 20 points and Spencer Butterfield with 19. Ben Clifford and TeNale Roland each finished with 14.
USU actually had an outstanding night shooting — it went 58.1 percent from the field on 25 of 43 — but turnovers, especially early in the game, hurt them.
“It was a great win and I’m extremely thankful for it,’’ said Cross. “Kevin Butler was huge for us down the stretch.’’
The Aggies, who came into the tournament as the No. 5 seed, got off to a horrible start, committing turnovers on five of their first six possessions and falling behind 10-2. Meanwhile, the Mavericks were hot from the field making 11 of their first 18 shots and pushing the lead to 27-9 at the 9:28 mark when Jordan Reves made a layup.
USU started clawing its way back into the game behind Butterfield, who scored 14 first-half points as the Aggies closed within 11 at 40-29.
The Aggies started fast in the second half to cut the lead to six in the opening two minutes. And it pulled within two at 50-48 on an inside basket by Clifford. A couple of minutes later Clifford gave the Aggies their first lead of the night with a 3-pointer from the right corner to make it 53-52 with 11:50 left.
Gruszecki hit a pair of 3-pointers to stake the Mavericks to a 60-56 lead with just under 10 minutes left.
After that the lead went back and forth four times before the Mavericks went ahead permanently, 72-70, on a 3-pointer by Shaquille White-Miller with 2:48 left. Then Gruszecki drained a 3-pointer to extend the lead to five.
A three-point play Shaw cut the lead to 77-75 with 1:04 left, but Catlett and Butler hit free throws to make it 80-75. Clifford sank his fourth 3-pointer of the night to cut the lead to 80-78 and after Butler made one of two free throws, the Aggies had a chance to tie it. But Butler made the game-clinching steal, and the Aggies lost.
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