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Utah State Aggies taking aim at 5th straight win against UNLV

LOGAN — It was standing room only at the Riverwoods Conference Center early Monday afternoon.

With Utah State head basketball coach Stew Morrill slated to speak at the weekly gathering of the Big Blue Scholarship Fund for the final time, Aggie fans showed up en masse, leaving the staff to scramble for additional food and seating.

The packed house was just another reminder that Morrill's 17 years at USU are rapidly coming to a close. Tuesday night's game against UNLV is Morrill's next-to-the-last home game — barring a postseason tournament contest at the Spectrum — and the veteran coach clearly feels like he's going out on a high note.

The once raw and inexperienced Aggies (9-5 in the Mountain West, 16-10 overall) have won a season-high four games in a row, and they head into their final four regular-season games in fifth place, trailing just San Diego State (12-3, 22-6), Wyoming (10-4, 21-6), Boise State (10-4, 20-7) and Colorado State (10-5, 23-5).

"I told them before the game the other night, ‘It doesn’t look like you’re going to finish 10th. That’s where you were picked, and it doesn’t look like you’re going to finish there,’ ” Morrill said. "I’ve been on them all year to prove they were better than that. Even if we don’t win another game, we’re probably not going to finish 10th. We’d like to win some more, but they can feel pretty dang positive about what they’ve done to this point and keep trying to do some more things.”

The first of those “things” is trying to beat the Rebels (6-9, 15-12), who have historically been brutally tough on the USU basketball program. UNLV owns an all-time advantage of 30-3, with all three of the Aggies’ victories coming between 1994 and ’96 while both schools were still in the Big West Conference. The Rebels swept Utah State last season during the Aggies’ first campaign in the Mountain West.

Now in their fourth year under Dave Rice, who spent the 2004-05 season as an assistant under Morrill, the Rebels edged Utah State 79-77 in overtime on Jan. 24 in Las Vegas. In that victory, UNLV’s Rashad Vaughn racked up 31 points and nine rebounds, but the freshman guard is currently sidelined by a torn meniscus in his left knee.

“They lost a really good player, but they seem to have adjusted well,” Morrill said of the Rebels. “They have a lot of talent, and they’re long, they’re athletic, and they can shoot the ball really well. … They have a whole bunch of different guys that can hurt you, and they’re shooting the ball really well from three.

“I think they feel like they’re playing some of their best basketball right now.”

With Vaughn out of the lineup, UNLV lost at Air Force and at home to Boise State, but the Rebels won at New Mexico, 76-68, Saturday night. Four different UNLV players reached double figures in the victory, including freshman guard Patrick McCaw (22 points), senior guard Jelan Kendrick (17 points) and sophomore forward Christian Wood (17 points).

“New Mexico’s going through a tough stretch right now, but you still have to go into The Pit and beat them, and that’s not an easy thing to do in front of 15,000 fans,” Morrill pointed out.

Morrill compared trying to defend the Rebels with the challenge of stopping the Fresno State Bulldogs (7-7, 12-15), who gave the Aggies all they could handle in an 85-79 loss Saturday at the Spectrum. The veteran coach called that victory “a hard win,” but it was his 400th as the head coach at Utah State, making him just one of eight active NCAA Division I coaches to win that many games at the same school.

Afterwards, Morrill chalked up the milestone to simply being around for a long time, but on Monday, he said he felt a little differently after his wife, Vicki, showed him his, “It means I’m old” quote in the newspaper.

“I feel very fortunate,” declared Morrill, who also spent five years as the head coach at Montana and seven seasons at Colorado State. “As I look at this profession and all the things that go on, what mostly comes to mind is that I just feel very fortunate to have done it as long as I’ve done it. And to have as many good players and assistant coaches as I’ve had at three really fine universities, and to be able to walk away on my own terms.

“Not a lot of guys get to say all those things. I feel like it’s been a really good ride.”