Utah State mounted a tremendous comeback here Saturday night, holding Boise State without a basket for nearly the final eight minutes and cutting a 14-point Bronco lead to three with just 53.6 seconds remaining. But the late run merely highlighted Utah State's problems for the first 32 minutes.
The Aggies ultimately failed to live up to their part of the championship bargain, losing 57-49 to the Broncos while Nevada lost by 10 at Idaho.(BSU built its final eight-point margin when the Ags had to foul.)
If USU had beaten Boise State, it would have won the Big West Eastern Division championship outright. As it stands now, the Aggies have clinched at least a piece of the title but can still be tied - and Nevada could still claim the top seed to the league tournament, depending on the outcome of the final two games later this week.
"Too late, too little," said USU senior guard Justin Jones, who scored 10 points, seven in the first half when USU was whipping itself with 16 turnovers. (The Aggies turned the ball over 23 times altogether, a season high).
"We waited too long for the comeback," Jones added."I don't have any idea why we didn't come out that hard at the start with what's at stake."
"The first 35 minutes were as poor as we've played. We didn't want to put out the effort to win the game," USU coach Larry Eustachy said, noting losses at New Mexico State and Nevada that were the same way. "Just contesting shots, fronting (Bronco Roberto) Bergersen (23 points), and playing behind him, and when we do front him, getting the lob. We don't want to do those things that win.
"It's as baffled as I've been with what's at stake," he added, acknowledging that the team was trying to do right and just couldn't. "I can't explain it."
Kevin Rice led USU (20-7 overall, 11-3 in the Big West) with 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting and eight rebounds, but he made five of the turnovers. Donnie Johnson had a game-high 10 rebounds, eight in the second half. USU outboarded BSU 32-20.
Neal Geddes got his second start at guard because Eustachy benched Pharoah Davis for throwing an elbow at a teammate during the pregame shootaround. Eustachy told Davis he wouldn't play but relented seven minutes into the game in an attempt to stop the Broncos or start the Aggies. Freshman Brandon Birch started the second half.
The Broncos are 12-0 at home this season but 3-10 on the road. The Aggies whipped them 70-41 in Logan in January. Eustachy said he tried to tell his team the Broncos would be very different in Boise,but it wasn't enough.
BSU forced turnovers by bumping players hard enough to snap their heads back as they are about to receive the ball, shoot or drive. Twice on long shots, Jones' shooting wrist was clearly grabbed on the shot, and nothing was called.
"You've got to play through it," Jones said, "but it wears on you mentally. You get frustrated."
Which may explain why Aggie scoring leader and point guard Marcus Saxon pushed off with an elbow for an offensive foul to foul out of the game with 3:17 left. That made the Aggie comeback all the more remarkable. Saxon's career best game was here last season, 33 points, 13 in an overtime in a 13-point overtime win for USU.
"Oh, we didn't execute. No excuse," Eustachy said of the no-calls. "We're supposed to be a good team. Good teams come in here and win or make a better showing. It's one thing to go down. It's another thing to go down with lack of execution."
At BSU's Pavilion, where crowds had been averaging around 1,600, a mid-week offer of free tickets to all those under age 18 and for $5 in the upper sections swelled the audience to 10,401. The crowd got its money's worth with a 21-point Aggie first half - the lowest of the season despite 53 percent shooting. Yet with Saxon scoreless and all the turnovers, USU was within three points with 2:53 left in the first half before making three more turnovers.
The Aggies have two home games left - Thursday vs. New Mexico State and Saturday vs. North Texas.