Published March 13, 2011
LAS VEGAS – Tai Wesley scored 19 points after a quiet start and No. 23 Utah State earned its second straight trip to the NCAA tournament, beating Boise State 77-69 in the Western Athletic Conference championship game Saturday night.
Utah State (30-3) was solid throughout in its fifth WAC title game in six years, getting big contributions from Brian Green (12 points) and Nate Bendall (16 points) at the start of each half.
Wesley took over down the stretch, scoring nine points in the final 5 minutes to help the Aggies match a school record for wins and set off a wild celebration with the student section at midcourt.
Boise State (20-12) twice came back from double-digit deficits to make it close, but will now have to hope for some generosity from the NCAA tournament selection committee for its first berth since 2008 — which might be a longshot coming out of the weak WAC.
La'Shard Anderson led the Broncos with 18 points.
Utah State wrapped up the WAC regular-season title early and had a decent win against Saint Mary's, building a strong case to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Aggies didn't want to gamble on their trip to The Strip, though, hoping to earn the automatic bid instead of sweating it out on selection Sunday like they had to do in two of the previous three seasons.
Utah State managed to get an NCAA invite last season despite losing in the WAC tournament, but wasn't so fortunate in 2007-08 after winning the regular-season title and losing in the second round to Boise State.
The Aggies took the first step in the semifinals on Friday, pulling out a four-point win over San Jose State despite struggling offensively most of the night.
Utah State had no trouble with Boise State during the regular season, winning by nine in Idaho, then busting the Broncos with a 28-point shellacking at a charged-up Spectrum.
Boise State has been a different team since then, though.
Embarrassed by the loss in Logan, the Broncos regrouped and refocused, peeling off seven straight wins to close out the regular season and earn their highest seeding since joining the WAC in 2001-02. Boise State had to shake off the rust a little after earning a double-bye in the tournament, but turned it on quickly to rout New Mexico State in the semifinals to earn another shot at the Aggies.
The Broncos were intent on not letting Wesley beat them in the first half, doubling him immediately on every touch in the post. He had no trouble whipping passes out to the wings for open shots, particularly to Green, who had eight points as the Aggies built a 12-point lead by the midpoint.
Boise State wouldn't let them run away with it just yet.
The Broncos, after missing their first seven 3-point attempts, hit three over the next few minutes, then Anderson took over, scoring 13 points in the half to keep Boise State within two.
Utah State opened the second half just like the first, this time turning to Bendall, who scored eight points in the first 3 minutes during a 12-0 run that put the Aggies up 47-33.
Boise State again chipped away at the lead, pulling within two with just under 5 minutes left, but never made it all the way back.
The Aggies kept hitting shots and free throws down the stretch, giving them time to celebrate in the closing seconds as they headed to the program's 20th NCAA tournament appearance.