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Aggies earn 4th trip to Big West finals

ANAHEIM, Calif. — A night after giving up a big lead, Utah State took one away — earning a fourth consecutive trip to the Big West Conference tournament finals in the process.

Desmond Penigar scored 24 points as the Aggies rallied from a double-figure deficit to defeat UC Irvine 62-55 Friday night in the Anaheim Convention Center.

They'll face upstart Cal Poly, who upset defending champion UC Santa Barbara earlier in the evening, in Saturday's championship game (10 p.m., ESPN).

A dunk by Penigar iced the outcome with 19.4 seconds remaining and made it 59-55. Cardell Butler, who finished with 12, netted USU's remaining points after the Aggies took their first lead (at 55-54) since 8-7 on a free throw by Toraino Johnson with just under five minutes remaining.

Irvine, seeking to become the first team since UNLV in 1992-93 to defeat USU three times in one season, was unable to respond. The Anteaters failed to make a field goal over the final 7:22 in squandering a once-sizeable advantage.

USU trailed 32-25 at halftime after Irvine unloaded a long-range attack. The Anteaters made six 3-pointers over a seven-minute stretch to turn a small deficit into a comfortable lead.

Irvine eventually extended its advantage to 15 points before being held scoreless over the final 4:25 of the half as the Aggies tightened their defense. USU's offense, meanwhile, capitalized on the situation by scoring eight straight points before the intermission.

While it managed to close the gap and even included a pair of treys by Penigar, the run failed to put more than a small dent in Irvine's earlier outburst. Mike Hood and Stanislav Zuzak, who each hit three from beyond the arc, had 24 points between them—just one less than USU's entire team had at the break.

Though things later tightened — Hood and Stanislav combined for only three more points the rest of the way — the halftime differential deviated from an expected script.

After Thursday's 89-83 overtime win over Cal State Fullerton, USU coach Stew Morrill reminded reporters that the Aggies and Anteaters traditionally played each other close.

"The last couple of years we've had great games with them," Morrill said of a series where the past four meetings have been decided by a combined total of just five points.

In 2001-02, each team claimed a one-point victory on the other's home floor. Irvine prevailed 67-66 in Logan, while USU claimed a 62-61 victory in California.

This season, the Aggies came up empty after two heart-breaking conclusions. The first came Jan. 15 in Irvine when a buzzer-beating shot by Hood lifted the Anteaters to a thrilling 75-73 overtime victory.

On Feb. 13, the squads squared off in a wild affair in the Spectrum. Irvine left the court with a 59-58 win after Hood hit a pair of free throws with 1.3 seconds remaining. The shots followed a pair by USU's Ronnie Ross just moments earlier.

The back-and-forth finish came in the 51st contest between the conference rivals and broke a 25-25 tie in the balanced series. Friday's encounter knotted things up again.

In the other Big West semifinal:

NO. 4 CAL POLY 67, NO. 1 UC SANTA BARBARA 52: The top-seeded Gauchos won't be going back to the Big Dance. Varnie Dennis scored 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots as the Mustangs upset the defending Big West tournament champs. UCSB's Branduinn Fullove, the league's Player of the Year, was held to just two points and was 0-for-8 from the field.