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USU wins game, earns third seed

LOGAN — It wasn't a bad night for Utah State. It just could have been better.

Though Thursday's 69-58 victory over Cal State Northridge assured the Aggies of a school-record fourth consecutive 20-win season and sewed up the No. 3 seed in next week's Big West Conference tournament, it wasn't enough to prevent mathematical elimination from the championship race.

Santa Barbara's win at Cal State Fullerton later in the evening gave the Gauchos the coveted top seed in postseason play.

"Let them celebrate," USU senior Desmond Penigar said while reminding reporters what happened in 2002. "Last year we won the conference and Santa Barbara won the Big West tournament (as the third seed). So things can turn."

The encouraging thing, explained head coach Stew Morrill, is that the Aggies (20-8, 11-6) are playing hard and have a good state of mind. The victory over Northridge (13-14, 7-10) stopped a two-game skid.

"When you've lost a couple of games, you sometimes just have to get over the hump to get your confidence back a little bit," Morrill said. "Hopefully, this game will help us along those lines."

After three early lead exchanges, USU took the lead for good with a 20-5 run midway through the first half. Ronnie Ross, who joined Penigar in scoring a team-high 17 points, hit three 3-pointers in the decisive stretch.

"We didn't respond well to that," said Northridge coach Bobby Braswell, whose team could end up facing USU again next Thursday night (9:30 p.m., MST) in the quarterfinals of the Big West tourney in Anaheim, Calif. Fullerton and Saturday's opponent Pacific are the other possibilities.

The Matadors trailed 35-22 at halftime and drew no closer than six the rest of the way. Ian Boylan led all scorers with 22 points while making seven of the nine shots he took. Northridge shot 54 percent in the second half, but USU remained ahead by dominating the boards and limiting the visitors to just three second-chance opportunities. By game's end, the Aggies held a 36-22 rebounding advantage with six players grabbing four or five.

"I'm just pleased with the fact that we came out and really tried hard and competed," Morrill said. "A lot of things didn't go perfectly — we made a number of errors — but that's OK. We found a way to get a win and that is what's important."

GAME NOTES: Morrill is now 68-7 at home as head coach of the Aggies . A loss would have given USU back-to-back setbacks in the Spectrum for the first time since 1992-93 . . . The contest was broadcast by Fox Sports Net . . . Saturday's home and season finale with Pacific will start at 7:05 p.m. . . . Ross went 6-for-6 from the free throw line and contributed three steals to the victory. . . Cardell Butler recorded his team-high 16th dunk of the season . . . Attendance was 7,386.