Former NBA coach Tom Nissalke, now a radio talk-show host and part-time color commentator for Utah State basketball, has said all season that Aggies Marcus Saxon and Kevin Rice are "the two most exciting players in the state."
He said it again, with emphasis, Friday afternoon after the two Aggie seniors dazzled a Lawlor Center crowd of 2,147 (mostly Aggie fans) and teamed with junior center Donnie Johnson to ensure that USU won its first-round game in the Big West Conference Tournament, 69-61, over Long Beach State.The Aggies advanced to tonight's 6 MST semifinals against upset winner Cal Fullerton, which took out Boise State in Friday's second game for its first tournament win since 1990.
USU sent its overall record to 23-7 - second-best win total in school history with the opportunity to tie the all-time Aggie mark tonight - by outfoxing and out-moving a far bigger Long Beach State team.
"Saxon is an incredible talent," said 49er coach Wayne Morgan, who tried using three players, none of whom could stop Saxon's double-clutching, spinning drives into the lane. Those drives gave Rice license to make the same kind of super-athletic moves from baseline angles. Rice had 17 points on 50-percent shooting, nine rebounds and three steals. Long Beach's Antrone Lee, an athletic 6-7 point guard, fouled out trying to take on Saxon, who scored a game-high 27 points on 11-for-16 shooting.
"That's what we try to do," said Saxon. "Get a piece of the paint. They didn't come off me when I penetrated, and once I got into the paint, I started taking it to the basket." Saxon made some layins, but he also made drives to the left where he'd stop-and-pop at the free-throw line, shooting right-handed back across his body like a quarterback who can throw right while running left.
"He explodes in the air and goes backward at the same time," said Morgan, comparing that quick fader to Michael Jordan's moves. "When you win 22 or 23 games, you need a guy who can carry you. He carried them."
"Here's my paycheck, right here," said Aggie coach Larry Eustachy in the interview room, sitting between the state's two most exciting players and draping his arms over them.
"I pushed hard for Marcus to be MVP of the league," said Eustachy. "He's the best player I've ever coached." Eustachy said Saxon's game, more a defensive and strategic gem than a sheer offensive show, was the best he's played.
Saxon's game is all the more impressive because he's been playing on a torn meniscus (left knee) for about six weeks. Eustachy said he could have had surgery, which would have put him in better shape for the NBA Portsmouth tryout camp to which he's been invited, but Saxon thought more of the team's welfare than his own. The knee buckled on him a couple of times, and he twisted it when tripped on a drive, but each time he came back with shockingly quick moves into the lane, refusing to give in to the pain.
USU was the first seed from the league's Eastern Division, and Long Beach was the fourth seed from the weaker West, but the 49ers had such a mismatch with all-conference first-team center Andrew Betts, 7-foot-1, against the 6-6 Johnson that USU had to go all-out every play.
That could hurt them tonight. Eustachy didn't substitute at all in the second half. He wished later that he had and said he will tonight, but Long Beach kept threatening the final 10 minutes as the Ags tired.
Freshman Mark Thurston had to hold up the spent Saxon in huddles late in the game after the point guard, Johnson and Rice had dragged the Ags back into the first half. Long Beach had opened with a 16-7 advantage, exploiting USU's zone designed to limit Betts. Long Beach made two threes from a wide-open weak side, but the Ags shut that off while still making 10 steals, mainly on passes to Betts. Johnson had four swiped passes, 15 points and 12 rebounds. Betts still had the ball in shooting position 30 times, said Morgan. He was 9-for-20 for a team-high 19 points.
A Johnson offensive rebound turned into a 3-point play for him, and then Saxon made the first of two straight spinning, penetrating drives for scores that tied it at 16. USU's first lead was 20-18. A Rice baseline layup with his own offensive rebound tied it at 24, and Justin Jones' only 3-pointer of the half gave the Ags a 27-24 lead. They were never behind again.
Rice said the Ags had been a little too keyed up since Thursday's practice. Eustachy had said Thursday night that he'd have to pull himself back. "I've overthought this one," he said. USU, despite its athleticism, is usually a poised, patient team; once it picked its spots Friday, it was on the road to victory.
In Fullerton, USU will meet a team that is 12-16 overall with a decent 5-9 record away from home.