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Penigar helps Aggies improve at season's end

LOGAN — Desmond Penigar left Utah State with quite a parting gift — 25 points, nine rebounds and three steals in last week's surprisingly close 64-61 loss to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.

"What a great way for him to finish his senior year," said USU coach Stew Morrill, who praised the forward's leadership and focus down the stretch.

After enduring an up-and-down campaign, Penigar elevated his game in the postseason. He was MVP of the Big West Conference Tournament less than a week before shining in the NCAA tourney. Penigar's late run of consistency allowed the Aggies to overcome a disappointing third-place finish in league play and end the year on a much higher note.

"Utah State is on the map," Penigar said. "Next year, the guys are going to represent this team right."

Confidence gained in the near miss against the Jayhawks should pay dividends down the road. Until then, however, the Aggies are mired with the pain of a tough setback.

"It doesn't feel good to lose," Penigar said. "Nobody expected us to be here, but we did. We came up here and expected to win this game."

Say what? Is this the same USU team that lost to Jackson State, Pacific, UC Riverside and Idaho earlier in the season?

In a word: No.

At the NCAAs, Morrill said the Aggies (24-9) were playing their best basketball off the season. They reeled off five straight wins before facing Kansas. The streak began with a victory at home over Northridge that assured USU of a school-record fourth-consecutive 20-win season.

It ushered in a run of triumphs culminating in a third Big West tourney title (and accompanying automatic NCAA bid) in four years. The latter led the Aggies to Oklahoma City and the meeting with Kansas. USU came up empty in 11 opportunities in the closing minutes to either tie or take the lead.

"You never want to be satisfied with coming close," Morrill said before the team left the Ford Center last Thursday. " . . . Regardless, our men did an excellent job and I am very proud of them."

Individual accolades in 2002-03 were awarded to Penigar, a repeat first-team all-conference selection, and four others. Sophomore center Spencer Nelson was named the Big West's co-Hustle Player of the Year. He joined Mark Brown and Toraino Johnson on the conference's list of honorable mention honorees. Nate Harris represented USU on the all-freshman squad.

The former Sky View High School standout is part of a bright future Penigar forecasts for the program. Starters Nelson, Brown and Cardell Butler will return next season. They'll likely be joined on the first unit by redshirt center Mike Ahmad and junior college transfer Jason Williams, an all-stater from Santa Rosa. Dixie State product Chris Huber is expected to improve USU's outside shooting.

A transition period is likely, though. The Aggies must replace graduating seniors Penigar, Johnson, Mike Puzey and Ronnie Ross. The foursome accounted for nearly half of USU's point production.

2002-03 USU basketball leaders

Scoring: Desmond Penigar, 15.4

Rebounding: Spencer Nelson, 7.3

Assists: Mark Brown, 4.6