Utah State's decade-long wait for a return trip to the NCAA tournament is over.
Marcus Saxon scored 23 points, and Utah State held off a late rally to beat Pacific 78-63 Sunday, claiming the Big West tournament championship and an automatic NCAA berth.Justin Jones added 17 points, Kevin Rice had 14 and Pharoah Davis had 11 for Utah State, making its 12th trip to the NCAA tournament but the first since 1988, when the Aggies lost to Nebraska in the first round.
"We've set a school record for wins and we're going to the NCAAs," Utah State coach Larry Eustachy said. "We're happy but not satisfied. We think we can go beat somebody."
The Aggies (25-7), who earned their second Big West championship and surpassed the school's season record for wins, beat Pacific, the defending tournament champion, for the first time in four tournament meetings. Utah State fans stormed the court and players and coaches hugged one another and danced on the floor and at Lawlor Events Center.
"It's a lot harder watching the other team celebrate especially after celebrating here ourselves last year but Utah State played better than us," Pacific's Adam Jacobsen said.
Utah State drew a No. 13 seed in the West region and will play No. 4 seed Maryland in the first round Thursday at Sacramento.
`They're an exceptional team and they play in the best conference (ACC) in the country," Eustachy said. "We have our hands full. I'm sure they're big and strong but we'll analyze them this week and go there and have a game plan and try to beat them."
Michael Olowokandi's 32 points led Pacific (24-9), which defeated Utah State in the semifinals last year en route to the conference title, while Rayne Mahaffey added 12 points. No other player scored in double figures for Pacific, which saw its 16-game winning streak snapped.
"I thought we beat a great team," Eustachy said. "They'd won 16 in a row, but our team was not to be denied."
Pacific, meanwhile, awaited word on whether it would receive an NIT bid.
"Getting to the NCAA's was our goal, so yes, we're disappointed," Pacific coach Bob Thomason said. "But UOP has never been in the NIT and especially if we get a home game, we're going to be excited about it."
Trailing 59-45 with 10:06 left, Pacific put together a startling 18-6 run, pulling within 65-62 on Olowokandi's 6-foot turnaround jumper with 3:53 remaining. He added the front end of a 1-and-1, his 11th straight point for Pacific but that proved to be Tigers' last score.
Utah State broke Pacific's momentum when Donnie Johnson went in for a layup and Saxon, the tournament MVP, hit a leaning 10-foot bank shot, allowing the Aggies to go up 69-63 with 1:34 left.
An exhausted Olowokandi missed a layup with 55 seconds left and Utah State then made nine of 10 free throws down the stretch, including five by Davis.
"We knew Pacific would come back and make a run. But once we got the lead, we knew they couldn't get back in front of us," Saxon said.
Up by eight points at halftime, Utah State stretched its lead to 56-41, getting two 3-pointers from Saxon and one from Jones in a 16-9 spurt to open the second half.
Saxon's 3-pointer in the final seconds of the first half put Utah State in front 40-32, matching the Aggies' biggest lead to that point.
Olowokandi scored 12 points in the first half and his 5-foot jumper gave Pacific a 22-18 lead. But Utah State then had an 11-0 run, triggered by consecutive fastbreaks that Saxon and Rice finished with layups.
Mahaffey broke up the flurry with a 3-pointer but Olowokandi picked up his third foul with 3:44 remaining and Utah State closed the half by outscoring Pacific 9-5.