Utah State makes another case for NCAA Tournament inclusion with convincing quarterfinal win over New Mexico
After failing to win any Mountain West Conference honors, Taylor Funk scored a season-high 32 points for the Aggies in blowout victory
LAS VEGAS — After bubble-sitting Utah State pounded his team 91-76 Thursday night in a Mountain West Conference quarterfinal game, New Mexico coach Richard Pitino said he would be “blown away” if the Aggies don’t get invited to play in the NCAA Tournament if they don’t win the automatic bid awarded to the conference champion.
Not many among the huge and boisterous crowd at Thomas & Mack Center who witnessed Utah State hit 12 of 24 3-pointers would beg to differ.
“It is what March Madness is all about, right? The big plays. … That is what it is all about. It is just a special time of year, and we are all blessed to be able to be a part of it.” — Utah State coach Ryan Odom.
“They shot the lights out, man,” said New Mexico’s Javonte Johnson.
The Aggies played like they weren’t interested in putting their postseason plans in the hands of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, leading wire-to-wire against a New Mexico team (22-11) that at one time was the only undefeated squad remaining in the country.
“It was a big-time college basketball game,” Utah State coach Ryan Odom said. “… We knew it was going to be a battle. No secret there.”
Asked whether the Aggies are an NCAA Tournament team, Odom shrugged and offered the standard, “Yeah, we have no idea.”
In reality, it should be a no-brainer.
“That’s one of the best offensive teams we have played,” Pitino said.
The Aggies entered the contest with a NET ranking of 22 and at least one Quad 1 win, against Boise State — the team it will meet Friday at 9 p.m. MST in a huge semifinal.
San Diego State, assumed to be easily in the field of 68, will meet Cinderella — the San Jose State Spartans — in the early semifinal.
“It is what March Madness is all about, right?” Odom said. “The big plays. … That is what it is all about. It is just a special time of year, and we are all blessed to be able to be a part of it.”
Speaking of special, that would describe the night Utah State graduate player Taylor Funk had. Snubbed completely when the All-Mountain West awards came out, Funk scored Utah State’s first 16 points and had 21 at halftime, on 7 of 11 shooting.
He finished with 32 points (10 of 16), while Steve Ashworth had 22 while playing much of the second half with four fouls.
“It is a feel thing, and I was definitely feeling it at the start,” Funk said.
Regarding the all-conference snub, he added: “I think any one of us could have gotten it.”
Ashworth was a first-team pick and Max Shulga made honorable mention.
With Ashworth, Sean Bairstow and Zee Hamoda carrying four fouls apiece in the second half, Shulga came up big time and again. He was 2 of 3 from 3-point range and 4 of 4 from the free throw line when New Mexico was rallying back.
“His 3s were huge,” Odom said.
The Aggies led by as many as 18 points in the second half, but New Mexico chipped away at the lead, turned up the defensive pressure and cut it to eight with six minutes left on a bucket by Johnson. A pro-New Mexico crowd was at full throat. Lesser teams would have been rattled.
But big Brit Dan Akin had a dunk and Shulga hit four straight free throws to stem the tide.
“We fouled too much,” Odom said. “… It was a disjointed game from a substitution standpoint. … The key for us offensively was just kind of hanging in there.”
As far as USU’s chances of dancing are concerned, Odom said the only thing the Aggies can do is keep on winning. He’s not going to do any lobbying — not yet anyway.
Now if the Aggies lose the rubber match to the Broncos on Friday, he might have to change his tune a bit. But on this night, there was little left to prove.
“They are a tournament team, no question,” Pitino said.
Noted Odom, ever the stoic: “We will wait until Sunday to figure that out. Right now, we are just immersed in what we are doing here, and that is what we came to do. Just be immersed in the Mountain West tournament, do our best, regardless of the result, and then we will see where we are at on Sunday.”