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Utah State wallops Minnesota

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Just as everybody expected, there was a blowout at Williams Arena Monday night in the first-round Chase Preseason NIT game between Utah State and Minnesota.

It's just that everyone picked the wrong winner.No one figured a Utah State team that barely defeated a Canadian NAIA school three nights earlier could come back to Big Ten country and knock off a team that went 31-4 and made it all the way to the Final Four last year.

But that was indeed the shocking scenario as the unheralded Aggies jumped ahead early and cruised to a 75-64 victory in a game that really wasn't that close.

The unexpected victory sends the Aggies to a second-round game Wednesday night in Tallahassee, Fla., against Florida State, which defeated Loyola (Maryland) 89-72 at home Monday night.

Heck, even the Aggies weren't planning on coming away with a victory. Afterward, coach Larry Eustachy was worried because he hadn't brought enough clothes for an extra two days in Florida. But he was thrilled with one of the biggest wins of his career.

"It was a big win, to say the least," said Eustachy. "To come in here and play a team of this tradition and this magnitude . . . you've got to give our players all the credit. We're very proud of ourselves."

The Aggies were certainly given no chance by the local press.

In Monday's edition of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Aggies were listed with three other NIT teams in the "Forget about 'em" category as "one-and-out field fodder."

The St. Paul Pioneer Press had one of those position-by-position analyses you usually see in Utah when the Jazz are in the playoffs. The chart gave Minnesota the edge in all five categories - guards, forwards, centers, reserves and coaches.

Wrong.

The Aggies probably won every category except reserves Monday, and that was because their five main players each played at least 34 minutes, with four starters going 37 or more.

Utah State had a huge advantage at the guardline behind Marcus Saxon, who poured in 31 points on 11-of-18 shooting, and Justin Jones, who played the full 40 minutes and added 10 points and a team-high eight rebounds.

"We knew we could come in and win," said Saxon. "We knew nobody was going to give us a chance. We just played our game, and we won."

For a while it looked like the Gophers might pitch a shutout against the Aggies, as they raced to a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the contest while the Ags could barely get a shot off. At that point Eustachy called timeout, and he admitted later he was concerned about being embarrassed by the Gophers.

"I felt like General Custer going into Little Big Horn," he said later. "I thought we were going to get hammered."

During the timeout, Eustachy said he didn't do anything special except tell his team to play tougher.

"We were playing soft and not physical and were intimidated by the situation," he said. "I just reminded them what we talked about before the game, that we had to bring our strength and physical play to the game."

Suddenly, the Aggies were a different team. The Aggies came out and scored 10 straight points and finished the first quarter with a 17-2 run (the game was played under experimental NCAA rules that included four 10-minute quarters and a 40-second shot clock).

When Kevin Rice, the Aggies' 6-foot-3 forward, skied high to jam in a missed shot by Jones early in the contest, the 13,109 fans knew they weren't going to have a cakewalk as they had three nights earlier against Villanova of the Big East.

By halftime it was 38-26 for the Aggies, and after Dave Isaacson hit a three-pointer to start the second half, Saxon buried back-to-back three-pointers to stake the Aggies a 47-28 lead.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Aggies went up by 25 points at 62-37, and many of the Gopher fans headed for the exits. Only a bunch of Aggie turnovers against a desperate Minnesota press and 10 missed Aggie free throws in the final four minutes made the score respectable for the home team.

"This team deserves a lot of credit," said Minnesota coach Clem Haskins. "Saxon played tremendous. They have a lot of great offensive players."

Besides Saxon's 31 points and Jones' 10, Rice scored 19 for USU and Donnie Johnson added nine points and nine rebounds. Minnesota was led by Quincy Lewis with 17 points and Eric Harris with 12.

Wednesday night's game against Florida State will be televised on ESPN at 7:30 p.m. MST. The Aggies had hoped they would get a chance to host the game in Logan, but NIT officials apparently want to give the Atlantic Coast Conference team the best shot possible to make it to New York next week for the NIT Final Four.

NIT officials apparently had it all mapped out for Minnesota to make it to the Big Apple next week. If they would have beaten Utah State, they were already assured of a second-round game Wednesday at Williams Arena, where they have a remarkable 67-11 record over the past five years. Instead, the upstart Aggies spoiled everyone's plans with their big upset.

GAME NOTES: Birthdays must bring good luck to the Aggies. Saturday, the USU football team beat Nevada for the Big West title on coach John L. Smith's 49th birthday. Monday's win came on athletic director Chuck Bell's 54th birthday . . . Williams Arena has been called the "Wrigley Field of college basketball" by some because of its charm and age (built in 1928). It's also known as "The Barn" and was host to the 1951 NCAA Final Four . . . After the Florida State game, the Aggies return home to play Southern Oregon Saturday at the Spectrum. The NIT Final Four dates are Nov. 26 and Nov. 28.