Published March 11, 2011
LAS VEGAS – Tai Wesley had 14 points and 12 rebounds, Brockeith Pane added 16 points and No. 23 Utah State held off San Jose State 58-54 Friday night to reach the Western Athletic Conference tournament championship game.
Utah State (29-3) came into the WAC tournament looking for a second title in three years and to boost its NCAA tournament credentials. A fifth trip to the WAC title game in six years certainly helps, but the Aggies want to leave no doubt by beating the New Mexico State-Boise State winner on Saturday to earn the conference's automatic bid.
Eighth-seeded San Jose State (17-15) gave Utah State everything it could handle in the semifinals despite playing for the third straight day, just missing the lead in the closing seconds when Adrian Oliver's 30-footer rimmed out.
Oliver finished with 16 points and Keith Shamburger added 11 for San Jose State.
Utah State won its fourth straight regular-season WAC title handily, going 15-1 to finish five games ahead of second-place Boise State.
The Aggies set a school record for regular-season victories by winning 26 of their final 27 games and were ranked the final seven weeks of the regular season for their longest streak in 40 years.
The standard-setting season gave Utah State a double bye into the semifinals, while San Jose State had to go through two grueling games to get there.
The eighth-seeded Spartans made a surprising run into their first WAC semis, beating higher seeds Hawaii and Idaho behind the strong guard play of Oliver, Shamburger and Justin Graham.
San Jose State's road figured to get much harder against Utah State, a team led by six seniors and Wesley, the WAC player of the year.
The Aggies swept the two games during the regular season: by seven in Logan behind Pane's stat-sheet-filling game, and again by 19 on the road when reserve guard Brian Green scored a career-high 25 points.
In the third matchup, Utah State had hoped San Jose State would have tired legs after playing the previous two days, and coach Stew Morrill freely rotated players in, using nine in the first half.
The Spartans didn't seem to mind.
With Oliver and Shamburger again leading the way — they had 28 points each against Idaho — San Jose State kept it tight in the first half, trailing by just four after holding the Aggies to 12-of-31 shooting from the field.
Utah State tried to pull away early in the second half, building a 44-34 lead, but the Spartans weren't ready to cash in their season just yet.
San Jose State, after shooting poorly to open the half, started dropping a few here and there while continuing to play tight defense, pulling to 50-49 with just over 8 minutes left.
The Spartans continued to hang around, getting within two on Oliver's hard drive with 51 seconds left.
Oliver got San Jose's final chance after Wesley missed a free throw at the other end, holding his dribble until the closing seconds, then launching a long 3-point attempt from straightaway. It just missed, Wesley snared the rebound and made two foul shots this time, sealing the harder-than-expected win.