The coach said before Thursday night's game that he knew seniors Marcus Saxon, Kevin Rice, Justin Jones and Neal Geddes would perform well before the ESPN cameras. They're veterans. They've been through the raucous national-TV nights in the Smith Spectrum where the Utah State crowd puts on nearly as much of a show as the teams.
But Larry Eustachy said on the pregame radio show that he wasn't sure how junior starters Donnie Johnson and Pharoah Davis would handle the 10 p.m. start and crazed atmosphere, knowing that friends and family back home would have a rare opportunity to see them perform.No need to worry. The two junior-college transfers stole the show, aided by Saxon, as the Aggies flattened Nevada 74-52 late Thursday night to run their record to 17-5, 8-1 in Big West Conference play. The Wolf Pack fell to 10-8, 6-3, two games behind USU in the Eastern Division.
USU's 22nd straight home win tied the school record and moved the Ags into a tie with Butler for the sixth-longest current home-win streak in the NCAA. The school record could be broken Saturday when USU hosts 3-6, 8-11 Cal-Fullerton at the more normal 7 p.m. starting time.
Appropriately, the Ags' 22nd straight home win came by a 22-point, 22-rebound (49-27) margin against the team closest to them in the Big West race.
Both teams were humiliated at New Mexico State last week, Nevada losing 103-76 and USU falling 84-69 to break its seven-game win streak. Eustachy saw that as a positive, in a way, because the Ags had been winning without playing well. After the loss, "We just really woke up," said Davis, "and put our practice into the game."
"Our team was determined and ready tonight," said Eustachy. "Far different from the other night. This team has got a lot of pride."
Early this week, USU lost senior forward Dave Isaacson, who broke a foot bone for the second time this season (different bone, same foot).
That made Johnson and Davis critical factors against a Nevada team with two 6-foot-10 starters who outweighed them by 50 total pounds. As USU's inside players at 6-6 (Johnson, the center) and 6-5, their only backup now is true freshman Brandon Birch. "With Dave out," said Davis, "we lose a lot of experience and another body to play in the post."
Johnson scored 21 points (9-for-12), a career high, and grabbed a dozen rebounds. He said he played better than he had in his 20-point/20-rebound night against Long Island University in December. "I was real physical," said Johnson. "I just practiced real hard."
Eustachy told Johnson before the game that he'd get the ball a lot down low, and he was ready. Saxon said Johnson and Davis each caught tough passes better than usual and then did something with them. "I felt real comfortable going to (Johnson)," Saxon said.
"Donnie was more aggressive," said Eustachy. "I thought he had more to do with it (his big night) than anybody. He was kind of a different guy tonight."
Davis - with his parents in the crowd of 8,039, as they almost always are, home and away - totaled 16 points (5 for 9), 13 rebounds. Rice had 11 points, 10 rebounds. Saxon and Jones scored 11 each.
Johnson scored eight and Saxon seven with two assists as the Aggies raced to a 17-2 lead that soon climbed to 28-9 on back-to-back Davis buckets. USU shot 57 percent from the field in the first half while holding Nevada to 34 percent. At game's end, it was USU 52 percent to Nevada's 34 percent. Rice had four rebounds, a basket and an assist in the opening run that staked the Ags to a 39-27 halftime lead, but he got his third foul just before the half ended and his fourth 12 seconds into the second half.
No matter. Rice's roommate, Saxon, was in control all the way.
"I thought he ran the team maybe better than he's ever run it, and I think he should be very proud of how he played," said Eustachy. "You know what these (televised) games mean to those guys whose parents don't get to see them all the time." Saxon is from South Carolina.