LAS VEGAS — Utah State coach Tim Duryea said it wasn’t a Knute Rockne-type speech or anything he gave his team at halftime after a sluggish start in Wednesday’s first-round game at Mountain West Conference Tournament.
Whatever it was, the Aggies looked like a completely different team in the second half when they outscored San Jose State by 26 points and rolled to a 90-64 victory at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The blowout victory was Utah State’s 20th straight against San Jose State and earned the Aggies a second-round matchup with league champion Nevada Thursday at 1 p.m. MT. The winner of that game will play in the semifinals Friday at 8 p.m. MT.
Duryea gave the credit to his players, saying it was “more them” than any halftime speech that allowed them to post a tournament-record 59 points in the second half. But he did tell his team it had to be more aggressive after it made just one free throw compared to nine for SJSU.
“My message at halftime was that it’s a one-half game,” he said. “The most aggressive team is probably going to win and that’s what we talked about, being more aggressive. It was all about being more aggressive, freeing up mentally and physically.”
The second-half surge was fueled by freshman Koby McEwen, who scored 19 of his game-high 27 points in the final 20 minutes. Senior Jalen Moore scored 19 points with seven rebounds, while Sam Merrill chipped in 11 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Quinn Taylor added 11 points off the bench.
“In the second half, I didn’t really come out saying I’m going to start gunning, it just felt right,” McEwen said. “Every time I felt right taking the shot, I just shot it and my instincts took over. Usually when I do that, good things happen.”
McEwen had hit a 3-pointer from out front at the buzzer to pull the Aggies into a 31-31 tie at halftime and kept it up coming out of the locker room. He scored the first eight points of the second half, on a 3-point basket, a three-point play and a pair of foul shots to put the Aggies up 39-31 less than two minutes into the half.
When McEwen hit another 3-pointer at the 15:47 mark, the Aggies led by 13 at 48-35. San Jose made one more rally to cut the margin to four at 55-51 with 10:32 left, but Utah State regrouped and scored 18 straight points over the next five minutes to put the game away.
“I thought we started the game a little bit tight and a little bit cautious and just felt our way through it,” said Duryea. “In the second half we played with a lot more force, a lot more thrust. We got out in transition and made a lot of easy plays that resulted in high-quality shots. And we knocked them down.”
For the game, the Aggies shot 55.9 percent, including 63.3 percent in the second half. They also made 10 of 17 from 3-point range (58.8 percent). Meanwhile, San Jose State managed just 35.3 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from 3-point range.
“It was all the second half — we gave up 59 points,” said San Jose State coach Dave Wojcik. “We didn’t defend them. At the end of the day, they just beat us up in the second half and we didn’t do a good job against them defensively.”
The Spartans were led by Ryan Welage with 14 points, while Issac Thornton had 10 off the bench. The Aggies held first-team all-MWC forward Brandon Clarke to just eight points, although he did pull down 13 rebounds.
Duryea said the key to beating Nevada, a team the Aggies beat 74-57 in Logan and lost 77-66 in Reno, will be rebounding.
“We’ve got to rebound the ball,” he said. “I don’t think we played poorly at their place, but we got killed on the boards. That’s probably the key to the game tomorrow.”