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Utah State basketball: Aggies outlast Louisiana Tech

LOGAN — Playing in front of a packed house and the ESPN2 cameras, Utah State played like a team everyone in the conference wanted to beat.

But even taking the strongest punch a well-rested Louisiana Tech could deliver, the Aggies held on and now firmly control their Western Athletic Conference title aspirations after a gut-wrenching 67-61 win over the Bulldogs.

"Gotta feel good about that one, and we do," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said after the breath-taking win. "We're pretty much spent, the players and the coaches."

Louisiana Tech played like their WAC titles hopes depended on a win — because they did.

The Bulldogs, once the hottest team in the league, overcame a terrible first 15 minutes of the game to turn a 10-point Utah State lead into a back-and-forth battle you might expect from the conference's frontrunners.

In the end, though, it was Utah State defensive star Pooh Williams who answered the bell for the Aggies and delivering several of the knockout punches, scoring 11 straight points for his team late in the second half to power USU to its 11th straight win.

"I felt like we needed to get some buckets," Williams said. "I started being aggressive and they started falling."

Williams finished with 15 points — all in the second half.

He could have had more, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw situation. But it turned out as well as USU could have hoped for as Nate Bendall squeezed between a pair of LaTech defenders to snag the offensive rebound and his layup came with a foul and a free throw, which he made, to give Utah State a 63-58 with 27.9 seconds to play.

"When the game was on the line," Morrill said, "we made some plays to win it. ... That's a huge win for us."

LTU answered with a 25-foot bank-shot 3-pointer from DeAndre Brown to make it 63-61 with 16.7 seconds to play.

Utah State's Tyler Newbold, an 89-percent free throw shooter, was fouled on the inbounds play and calmly hit both free throws to push the Aggies' lead back to 65-61 with 14 seconds left.

Brown then missed a running, leaning 3-pointer with eight seconds to play and Jared Quayle rebounded and was fouled — making both shots — giving Utah State the breathing room it needed to close out the game.

Utah State (21-6 overall, 11-2 WAC) played a pretty unimpressive first half on the offensive end, shooting just 41.9 percent and turning the ball over six times.

They made up for it with a stiff defense and tenacious rebounding effort. Limiting the Bulldogs (20-6, 8-4) to just 33.3 percent shooting over the first 20 minutes, the Aggies clung to a 29-26 lead at the break.

LaTech continued its charge and took the lead at 37-36 on a 3-pointer from the corner by Brown. From there, it was a see-saw struggle with the teams trading baskets, fouls, turnovers and missed shots for the next 17 minutes.

"I'm really proud of our guys and the way they responded in a really close game," Morrill said. "Obviously, we went to Pooh a lot and he got on a roll and scored a bunch of points in a row for us."

Wesley, playing in foul trouble for most of the second half, finished with 16 points. Quayle, likewise, was comfortable on the wing and nailed his share of jumpers to keep the Aggies in the game when LTU threatened to hand Utah State its first WAC home loss in 22 contests. Quayle had 13 points.

Utah State's defensive stopper turned offensive weapon, however, was exactly what the Aggies needed.

Down by three with eight minutes to play, Williams took over.

Williams drove hard to the hoop for a layup and then dropped in a clutch 3-pointer in transition to give the Aggies a 50-48 lead after the team had gone ice cold from the field for a few minutes — scoring just two points over a five minute span.

"In the second half, I just tried to be aggressive because I really didn't want to lose to those guys again," Williams said. "We lost to them at their place and it was the worst feeling ever."

Sparked by Williams, the Aggies survived and now have a couple of days to rest up and prepare for Wichita State which comes to the Spectrum for Saturday's 10 p.m. ESPN BracketBuster matchup.