SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — The 300th win of Stew Morrill's career did not come easily Saturday night at UC Santa Barbara's Thunderdome.
But it came against a team that was leading the Big West Conference and off to its best start at home in 12 years.
"I hadn't even thought of that, I was so excited about the win," the Utah State coach said following the Aggies' 60-56 win.
"It will help you remember it and make it special," he said of beating a 9-4, 3-1 Gaucho team that was alone atop the league standings.
UCSB had opened its season 3-0 at home and has never been 4-0 at home. Its 9-3 start overall was its best since 1988-89, and it as ranked high nationally in several defensive categories.
USU has now won four straight against Santa Barbara and its last four games in the Thunderdome.
The number 300 "means you're a survivor," said Morrill, who is 82-26 as coach of the Aggies. "It means you've had a lot of good assistants and a lot of good players."
One of them is senior guard Tony Brown, who, despite an off night, finally put the game away with six seconds left by making two free throws even when iced by Morrill, who wanted to set up the defense.
Morrill said he wasn't worried about Brown, a strong free-throw shooter, and both of Brown's shots went through easily.
Brown had pretty much carried the 11-2, 3-1 Aggies with 26 points Thursday night in a loss at Cal Poly, but on Saturday he was 2-for-8 from the field but 8-for-8 at the line. "It was about time," Brown said of his poor shooting because he'd done well over the last five games. He totaled 12 points.
He said the team was thinking more about making up for Thursday's somewhat-lethargic loss than Morrill's No. 300. "I don't know how many people on the team actually knew that, but it's special for him," Brown said. "We put it in our mind that we didn't want to go home 2-2 (in Big West Conference play)."
Morrill was thinking more about the team's reinvigorated play, too. "I'm just really proud of our team. They showed tremendous character," he said, to come back and play extra hard after being on the road for four days, losing and having to play a top team.
With a better second-half defensive effort that held UCSB to only 27 percent shooting from the field, 0-for-9 on 3-point attempts, the Aggies pulled away to lead by 10, 51-41, with 8:12 left on a 15-footer by Desmond Penigar. Penigar made 9 of 17 shots to lead USU with 19 points, and he tied for the team lead in rebounds with six.
The Gauchos made a run to come within four. Ronnie Ross and Brown made two free throws each for a 57-51 lead, but Fullove got five of his game-high 21 points in the last two minutes. He made a layup and foul shot to cut the lead to 57-54, and after Penigar shot a 3-point miss, Morrill put Jeremy Vague into the game for defensive purposes.
The move turned out to be genius because Vague blocked a 12-foot shot by Nick Jones, and Ross got the rebound. Chad Evans was fouled attempting a layup and made one free throw before Fullove's basket with :08 left made it 58-56.
Brown stepped to the free throw line two seconds later and made them both to put the game away. In the final three minutes plus overtimes this season, Brown is 14-for-17 at the line. Brown also had seven assists, moving to fifth on the USU career ladder with 311.
Ross made three of four 3-point shots and totaled 11 points after missing 12 straight shots in his last two games. "Ronnie played a much better game," said Morrill. "Oh, boy, was that nice."
Also, eight of the 10 who played in the game scored for USU; Thursday, Penigar (23 points) and Brown (26) were joined only by Evans (7) and Mike Ahmad (2) in the scoring column and, other than Penigar and Brown, the Ags made only two field goals.
"We did a lot of soul-searching," Morrill said of the 48 hours following Thursday's loss. "One thing I can do is be brutally blunt, and I was brutally blunt" with the players.
The Aggies committed 15 turnovers to the Gauchos' seven — one in the second half — but a 33-30 rebounding edge "made up for that." An inspired second half helped, too, after the Ags had stood around too much, missing loose balls and the like in the first half.
Tied for second place with UCSB and Cal Poly, the Aggies now have a two-game homestand hosting league-leading UC Irvine (10-4, 3-0) on Thursday in the Smith Spectrum and 5-9, 1-2 Long Beach, a pre-season favorite, on Saturday.