ANAHEIM, Calif. — Spencer Nelson felt fine. The headaches were gone, and so too, was the neck pain. Three days after suffering a mild concussion in practice, the Utah State center shook off its effects as the Aggies advanced to the semifinals of the Big West Conference tournament at the Anaheim Convention Center.
"I felt really blessed tonight," Nelson said after USU's 89-83 victory over pesky Cal State Fullerton. Head coach Stew Morrill had different thoughts following the hard-fought overtime affair that ended well past midnight in Utah.
"I was blessed, too — that he could play," Morrill said. "We needed him out there."
Nelson scored 16 points and grabbed a game-high eight rebounds as the Ags got what they wanted — another shot at UC Irvine (tonight, 9:30 MST). The Anteaters swept the Aggies in two meetings this season by a combined total of three points.
"We are looking forward to this game," Nelson said. "We're just going to go (back to the hotel), get off our feet and think about what we need to do."
The winner will meet other semifinalists UC Santa Barbara or Cal Poly in Saturday's championship game for the right to represent the league in next week's NCAA tournament.
Nelson likes USU's chances. The keys, he added, will be defense, rebounding and playing smart.
Each played a role in the win over Fullerton. After allowing Ralphy Holmes to single-handedly erase a five-point lead over the final 39 seconds to force overtime, USU banded together in the extra session.
"Fullerton did a great job. They would not go away," Morrill said while acknowledging the Aggies were in shock after the Titans pulled even. "The thing I'm most proud of is when we got to overtime our guys stayed mentally strong."
Point guard Mark Brown, who posted his first double-double with 18 points and a career-high 12 assists, led the charge by going a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line over the final 43.3 seconds.
"We stayed positive throughout the whole overtime," he noted. "And stuck it out."
The second half, however, was a different story. The Aggies held a 68-59 lead with 1:30 to go when the situation began to sour. Holmes and Anthony Bolton, who combined for 49 points in the contest, teamed for Fullerton's final nine points over the last minute. The final five came on a 3-pointer and a basket by Holmes. Between scores, Fullerton's highly touted pivotman Pape Sow blocked a fast break lay-up by USU's Toraino Johnson that would have iced the outcome.
Sow was hurt on the play and watched the rest of the game with ice packs on his left knee and ankle. He saw limited action early on because of foul trouble and the Aggies capitalized.
Cardell Butler finished with a team-high 19 points, while Desmond Penigar added 17. The Aggies wound up shooting 58.5 percent from the field with Nelson's 5-for-5 performance leading the way.
He capped eight lead changes in the first half by scoring with four seconds remaining to give USU a 34-33 advantage at the break.
Though ahead, the margin paled in comparison to a sizzling start the Aggies enjoyed. They raced out to a 15-4 lead. Butler, who netted eight points in the stretch, closed the outburst by slamming down an alley-oop pass from Brown with 14:52 remaining.
As exciting as the play was for USU, though, the basket-swaying dunk also gave Fullerton life. The Titans responded with an 11-2 run over the next 4 1/2 minutes to climb into contention.
With the lead cut to four, the Aggies became vulnerable and eventually lost their grip. Three-point shots by Bolton put Fullerton in front 27-26 and 30-28 in the final three minutes.
Nelson, however, came to the rescue by tallying USU's next five points. The last two, of which, erased a 33-32 deficit.
In Thursday's other quarterfinal games:
NO. 4 CAL POLY 54, NO. 5 IDAHO 50: The Mustangs avenged two regular-season losses to the Vandals as Varnie Dennis, Shane Schilling and Jason Allen teamed for 43 points. It was Cal Poly's first Big West tourney win since joining the league in 1996-97.
NO. 1 UC SANTA BARBARA 53, NO. 8 PACIFIC 44: The top-seeded Gauchos prevailed despite shooting just 26 percent from the field. UCSB's Branduinn Fullove, the Big West Player of the Year, led all scorers with 20 points.
NO. 2 UC IRVINE 70, NO. 7 CS NORTHRIDGE 64 (OT): A late rally in regulation allowed the Anteaters to survive a scare. Irvine 7-footer Adam Parada finished with 14 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
Big West Conference tournament
At the Anaheim Convention Center
(All times Mountain)
Cal Poly (15-13) vs. Santa Barbara (18-12), 7 p.m.
UTAH STATE (22-8) vs. UC Irvine (20-8), 9:30 p.m.
2003 BIG WEST TOURNAMENT SEMIFINALS
Utah State vs. UC Irvine
Friday, 9:30 p.m. MST
Anaheim Convention Center
Radio: 610 AM (Logan), 98.3 FM (SLC)
Previous meetings in 2003
Jan. 15 at Irvine: UCI 75, USU 73 (OT)
Feb. 13 at Logan: UCI 59, USU 58
Name Ht. Yr. PPG
F D. Penigar 6-7 Sr. 15.2
F Toraino Johnson 6-4 Sr. 7.7
C Spencer Nelson 6-8 So. 10.2
F Cardell Butler 6-4 Jr. 8.0
G Mark Brown 5-10 Jr. 8.7
Name Ht. Yr. PPG
F Matt Okoro 6-7 Jr. 5.3
F Jordan Harris 6-5 Sr. 12.8
C Adam Parada 7-0 Jr. 12.3
G Jeff Gloger 6-4 Fr. 8.3
G Mike Hood 6-4 Sr. 10.0