The loser goes home; the prize for winning Friday afternoon is most likely a third chance for humiliation against No. 1-ranked UNLV sometime Saturday night. "I wouldn't mind," says Utah State basketball Coach Kohn Smith.
To have that third matchup with UNLV in the Big West Conference tournament Saturday semifinals, Utah State (11-16, 8-10) would have to win its quarterfinal game Friday at 4 p.m. MST at Long Beach Arena with Jerry Pimm's 13-14, 8-10 Santa Barbara team with whom they tied for fourth in the regular season.A Smith-coached USU team has not won a Big West tournament game; he is 0-2.
And the Gauchos, remember, cured their late-season ills with a 98-82 win over USU Feb. 28 in Santa Barbara. They had lost four of five games going into that one. "On the road," says Smith.
What's more, the Gauchos have become a team "that's hard for us to play," says Smith, remembering the second game more than the 81-75 Aggie win on Jan. 4 in Logan. "They really pound the ball inside; they've got a size advantage."
The Gauchos used a 1-2-3 punch to KO the Ags last week. They made a concerted effort to get the ball to 6-foot-9, 247-pound senior Gary Gray for 24 points and 14 rebounds. He's got two inches and nearly 25 pounds on Aggie senior center Randy Funk. Then they used 6-7 Lucious Davis' mobility for cross-screens from double-low post to high post, where he scored 27 points, 25 in the second half. Guard Mike Meyer finished the Aggies off with his 19 points.
Defensively, UCSB punished USU, too. "They took us out of our offense. We got impatient and didn't screen and cut very well. I was disappointed we didn't adjust," says Smith. "We've got to be a lot tougher physically and not let them push us around."He does not predict whether that will happen. The Ags are inconsistent. "I don't know," he says. "Sure they can do it if they gear up to it . . . "We've worked on taking away cuts and worked on really laying the body on them," Smith says.
The only bodies the Aggies have to lay on UCSB are Funk, 6-7, 230-pound freshman Eric Franson and 6-8, 205 senior Rich Jardine, so Smith hopes for a tightly officiated game. "If they'll call it close, it would be to our advantage," he says. "If it's physical, they're stronger than us."
Funk, Jardine, freshman forward Bryon Ruffner, junior guard Kendall Youngblood and sophomore guard Jay Goodman are probably Smith's starters.
Youngblood had the best offensive game of his career at Santa Barbara eight days ago, 34 points. "He's played fantastically," Smith says. "He's really out there battling."
Youngblood was named Big West player of the week for his two games last week, in which he had 67 points, 22-for-40 shooting, 9-for-11 three-pointers, 14-for-19 free throws and 14 rebounds. He had 48 second-half points. He's scored 96 in his last three games.
Youngblood, in 85 career games, has scored 1,281 points, 12th-highest total in USU history with another year to go. He needs 255 points to take the Aggie career lead.
AGGIE NOTES - They've won four of their 12 tournament openers, have a 7-11 tourney record and last won a tourney game March 12, 1988, for the league championship under Rod Tueller with Smith as assistant coach. They're 1-1 in tourney play with UCSB, having lost 87-79 in the first round in 1987 and won 73-66 in '88 in the second round.