With third place in their hands and a 107-107 tie going into the final two seconds of the regular season, the Utah State Aggies watched in horror Saturday night as they let Irvine guard Gerald McDonald take an inbounds pass from halfcourt after a timeout and rush uncontested into the lane after getting past Aggie senior Allen Gordon. McDonald put down an five-foot shot with :01 on the clock for a 109-107 Anteater victory in retiring Anteater Coach Bill Mulligan's final game.
"I don't think anybody would have thought he'd be the one to take the shot," said Aggie Coach Kohn Smith, who was certain that, with freshmen guarding them, high-scoring Anteater seniors Jeff Herdman or Ricky Butler would get the call for the final shot.Instead, the Anteaters cleared out and left McDonald one-on-one with Gordon. "I thought that was to our advantage," said Smith, "but we didn't play him tough enough."
The 11-16, 8-10 Aggies, who were behind by 10 (97-87) with four minutes left at Bren Center, would have gotten the third-place seed in the Big West Conference tournament next weekend with a victory as third-place Pacific (now 9-9) lost at Long Beach State and the Aggies had won a pregame coin toss that would have given them nod in the event they had tied with Pacific in the standings.
Instead, the Aggies finished tied for fourth with Santa Barbara and go into the tournament playing those same Gauchos, probably at 4 p.m. MST Friday in Long Beach. Irvine (6-12) did not qualify for the tourney.
The loss spoiled another Herculean effort by USU junior Kendall Youngblood, who scored a career-high 34 Thursday night at Santa Barbara and followed it up with a 33-point night - including 21 the second half - Saturday. Youngblood scored five three-point baskets in the final four minutes, and freshman Bryon Ruffner contributed most of his 16 points late in the second half, to bring Utah State back into it.
Youngblood's final three-pointer came with :24 left and tied the score at 107-107. He'd made two free throws with 1:08 left to tie the game 104-104, but the Aggies fouled Herdman, who missed a free throw for the first time in the game but made the second for a one-point lead. An Aggie turnover led to a slam dunk by Jeff Von Lutzow, whose season high had been 15 but who had 27 on this night. That made it 107-104.
Utah State fell behind by six in the first half, but three straight Youngblood baskets and two Irvine turnovers tied it at 33, and the Aggies went on to lead 40-39 at the half on a Jay Goodman three-pointer.
Smith was not impressed. "We just didn't play well the first half," he said. "We missed a bunch of layups, and that got us started poorly. I didn't think the intensity was there."
He blamed his seniors, whom he'd given a pregame pep talk. "I put a challenge to them to play well, and they did just the opposite," Smith said. Freshmen Ruffner, Eric Franson and Charlie Sager took up the slack, "but you need your seniors playing as well as they can at this time of year," Smith said.
"It seemed we couldn't stop them," Smith said of Irvine, one of the highest-scoring teams in the league despite holey defense.
"I thought we got outplayed," said Smith, noting particularly the first seven or eight minutes of the second half, when Irvine built a lead that stretched to 81-64. Ruffner scored the next eight Aggie points to begin the final push.
For the game, Youngblood topped everyone in scoring with his 33 that gave him 512 for the season and 1,281 points for his career with another year left. That leaves him 12th on the all-time Aggie list, just three points out of 11th. Youngblood had a team-high nine rebounds. Von Lutzow had 27 points and 10 rebounds for the Anteaters, followed by teammates Herdman and Butler . Goodman had 19 and Ruffner 16 points for USU.
Smith said he "can't help but have a little soft spot for Bill (Mulligan, the retiring UCI coach). Bill and I are very good friends.
"I still would like to have beaten him," Smith said.