Utah State 74, CS Fullerton 43
ANAHEIM, Calif. — The last time Utah State got the opportunity to avenge a loss, the Aggies laid a 15-point licking on eventual Big West Conference regular-season champion Cal Irvine, the Anteaters' only loss in league play.
Tonight at 7 MST in the Anaheim Convention Center, in a Big West Tournament semifinal game, the Aggies get a similar shot at the last team to beat them, and this chance means everything — move on to the championship game or go home early.
USU's opponent tonight is fifth-seeded Boise State, a surprise blowout winner Thursday against No. 3 seed Long Beach State in Game 1 of the tournament.
In Game 2 Thursday, second seed Utah State, defending its Y2K tournament win, bench-pressed No. 7 seed Cal State Fullerton 74-43 in a quarterfinal game to get that second shot at Boise. The Broncos beat USU by one in overtime in Boise on Feb. 24.
Against Fullerton, the Aggie bench outscored the starters 39-35, led by a career-high 13 points from senior guard Dion Bailey, 11 from sophomore Toraino Johnson and 10 from junior Jeremy Vague.
"I was just elated with how our bench came off and played with so much energy," said USU coach Stew Morrill, adding, "Our starters really set the tone defensively. Talk about defense. I think that was the story of the game."
USU held Fullerton to 28 percent first-half shooting and just 17 first-half points. The 31-point win was the Aggies' biggest-ever margin of victory in the tournament, beating last season's 23-point quarterfinal win over Pacific by a long shot for the school record.
They may have to match that kind of effort tonight against the Broncos, who have won their last four games. Morrill sees "a tremendous challenge trying to contain a red-hot Boise team that presents some matchup problems."
His team has played superb defense ever since losing at Boise. But Bronco post players — like Abe Jackson, who set a tourney record with five first-half threes Thursday — will shoot from the perimeter. And forward Kejuan Woods is scoring from anywhere lately, making the Broncos a defensive test for USU.
Luckily, the Ags will have a couple of things to drive them. For one, guard Bernard Rock says they've been soured by a feeling that most of the league had been talking about a Cal Irvine-Long Beach championship game come Saturday night, leaving defending-champion USU out of the speculation.
"We just wanted to go out and let everybody know that we're here, and we're here to stay," Rock said of the explosive way the Aggies opened the tourney.
And then there's that loss at BSU. Rock lost possession of the ball in the final seconds there, keeping the Aggies from attempting a winning shot, so tonight's game means a lot to him. "It is a big deal," he said. "We gave that game away. We were up 14. It was a tough loss, and their confidence is pretty high.
"They think they're going to come out and thump us. It's not going to happen," said Rock.
The Aggies are now 25-5, and the Broncos are 17-13. Fullerton fell to 5-23 and was eliminated along with 18-13 Long Beach (the only other BWC team to have beaten the Aggies this season).
In Thursday's breeze, the only starter to approach normal numbers was senior Shawn Daniels with 11 points and nine boards. "We've got a real good team, we've done a lot of good stuff this year, and we just want to keep on playing," he said.
Fullerton's only double-figure scorer was senior Ike Harmon with 12. He had nine rebounds.
The Ag starters built a 14-6 lead, so Morrill was able to substitute quickly, and six points from Bailey, four from Vague and a couple from Brennan Ray off the bench had the score up to 26-12 before the next change of personnel.
After a 3-pointer from Titan Kevin Richardson, the Ags went on a 14-0 run before the Titans got the last bucket of the first half, which ended 40-17. An eight-point CSUF spurt against the far end of the Aggie bench in the final two minutes of the game allowed the Titans to break the 40-point mark.
"The first half, we knocked down some shots (making 70 percent) to go along with our defense," said Morrill. "You shoot that kind of percentage, and everything looks good. These guys have always understood that that's where we hang our hat - at the defensive end of the court. Our defense has been good all year, but we'll really be tested (tonight). It's not only going to take (Thursday's) kind of effort (tonight), it's going to take some understanding and technique things as well."
The other semifinal tonight is Irvine vs. Pacific. The tourney championship game is at 10:30 p.m. MST Saturday, televised by ESPN.