The fourth game of the day in the WAC tournament matched the fourth seeded Utah State Aggies and the fifth seeded Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, the second Aggie-Bulldog matchup of the day. The Orleans oddsmakers liked Utah State to win by about 4 ½ and the total score to be around 129.
This was the third game today in which one team had swept the other during the regular season. Utah State won January 14 at Louisiana Tech, 69-65, and February 9 at the Spectrum in Logan, 77-63. This was also the third matchup today contrasting the teams’ typical pace of play: Louisiana Tech is in the top 100 (87), while only 21 teams play more slowly and deliberately than Utah State (#324).
Louisiana Tech ended the regular season with games at Fresno State and Nevada. Since school was between quarters and there would be no classes to come back for on Monday and Tuesday, the Bulldogs stayed in Nevada for all this week. Apparently the rest and relative lack of travel was good for Louisiana Tech, as they scored the first ten points of the game, six on layups by Tech center Romario Souza, and the ninth and tenth on a breakaway dunk by guard Brandon Gibson. At the first media timeout, Louisiana Tech led 10-0.
For the next few minutes, the game was mostly Utah State’s. Forward Morgan Grim and guard Kyisean Reed each made two free throws. Guard Brockeith Pane got a layup on a break, and forward Danny Berger made a three to tie the game at thirteen. Over the next few minutes, forward Ben Clifford scored seven for Utah State, and Tech guard Cordarius Johnson countered with two three pointers. The score was tied at twenty four by Gibson’s three pointer, and the rest of the half was very close, Tech leading 35-32 at the half.
The Bulldogs’ tenacious defense was effective in frustrating the Utah State shooters, and their three point shooting (five superhoops in the first half) was the difference in giving them the lead. The Aggies hung close by making all eight of their free throws, while Tech was three for six. Tech was led by guard Trevor Gaskins’ ten points, Souza’s nine, and Johnson’s eight; Clifford scored nine for Utah State, and Berger had seven.
The second half began much like the first, with a nine to two burst by Louisiana Tech ending with guard Kenneth Smith’s first of two second-half three point shots, giving the Bulldogs a 44-34 lead. The next ten minutes or so saw the scoring fairly evenly divided. I noted that I did not see the fire in the eyes of the Utah State players as I had in previous years, maybe a lack of experience, maybe a lack of confidence. This has not been the year they expected since senior Brady Jardine’s career ending injury, and the experience gained by the underclassmen on this team (Grim is the only other senior) will serve the Aggies well in the next several seasons. At the final media timeout, Tech led by seven, 69-62.
The final stretch was very exciting and entertaining. It started with Ben Clifford fouling Romario Souza on a layup attempt, and a long delay while the officials determined that there was not goaltending on the shot. Souza made one of two free throws to build the lead to eight. Kyisean Reed fell down in front of the Utah State bench, and used the Aggies’ final timeout to keep possession with three minutes to play. After sophomore guard Preston Medlin badly missed a three point attempt, Clifford got the rebound and got fouled, making one of two free throws. Lead back to seven. After a Tech turnover, Reed drove to the hoop and was fouled by Gibson, who was disqualified with five fouls. After Reed’s free throws, the Tech lead was five. Tech apparently passed the ball out of bounds on the next possession, but the officials believed a Utah State player had touched the ball and awarded it to Tech. Bulldog guard Raheem Appleby promptly traveled, sending the ball back to Utah State, who capitalized with a Clifford basket. Tech was now only ahead by three with two minutes to play.
Tech possession, 1:40 on the clock: Berger fouled Gaskins, who made both free throws to increase the lead to four, 71-67. Utah State, 1:32: Pane took the inbounds pass all the way to the hoop and laid it in; 71-69. Tech, 1:05: Aggie defense kept Tech from shooting, resulting in a shot clock violation. Utah State, :46.9: Offensive foul Medlin. Tech possession, :37.1: after a timeout, Smith made a pass that Souza could not reach. Utah State possession, :22.7: Appleby stole the ball from Clifford, was fouled by Berger, and missed the front end of the one-and-one. Utah State again, :12.7: Medlin’s shot was blocked out of bounds, but Utah State retained possession. Utah State, :06.1: Smith fouled Pane, who made the first free throw to cut the lead to one, and missed the second, with the rebound going out of bounds to Tech with five seconds to play. Reed fouled Gaskins on the in-bounds pass, and Gaskins made the first of the two free throws to increase the lead back to two with four seconds to play. After he missed the second, Utah State could not attempt a shot and Tech prevailed, 72-70. (This was the same score that Idaho, coached by long-time Utah State assistant Don Verlin, lost to Hawai'i in the opening game of the day.)
The Bulldogs had six players score and four in double figures, Souza and Gaskins with sixteen each, while Appleby and Gibson had thirteen apiece. Utah State was led by Berger’s seventeen, followed by Pane’s thirteen and Medlin’s twelve.
The Aggies have a very similar record and RPI (and style and scheme) to Idaho’s, and may similarly be invited to play in the CBI or CIT tournaments. Louisiana Tech advances to Friday’s second semifinal game against Nevada.