LAS VEGAS - It struck midnight on Cinderella Friday night in the first semifinal of the Western Athletic Conference Men's Basketball Tournament.
Eighth-seeded San Jose State's surprising run came to an end, but not before some major finger-nail biting by No. 21 Utah State - 17th in the USA Today/ESPN poll. The Aggies held on for dear life in a 58-54 win at the Orleans Arena in front of mostly USU fans.
"The game might've been surprising to a lot of people watching, but it wasn't to us," Aggie head coach Stew Morrill said. "San Jose State has always played us tough. They had momentum going, and we shot ourselves in the foot a few times. ... I give all the credit in the world to them, and the tournament they had. They had a great shot at beating us tonight, and I'm glad to get out of there with a win."
Adrian Oliver, who is third in the nation in scoring, got off a 3-point shot with less than five seconds to play that was just off the mark for the Spartans. The trey would have given SJSU (17-15) the lead.
"I had flashbacks to two nights ago when I did make it," said Oliver, who lead SJSU with 16 points. "I was happy to be in that position again. I had a feeling that something special was about to happen. You make some, you miss some and tonight I just didn't make it."
USU's Tai Wesley grabbed the rebound and was fouled. After missing the front end of two one-and-one situations on his last two trips to the charity stripe, Wesley sank both foul shots with 3.2 seconds to play to seal the victory for the Aggies (29-3)."I was happy to get to the free throw line," said Wesley, who had 14 points and 12 rebounds. "The first one (missed free throw) I shot short and the second one I shot long. The third one I shot in."
He also made the fourth one.
With the win, USU advances to the WAC Tournament championship game for the third straight year and the fifth time in six years.
In the other semifinal Friday night, second-seeded Boise State romped by third-seeded New Mexico State, 81-63. The Broncos will take on the Aggies in the title game tonight at 8 o'clock MT.
Before BSU beat NMSU, Wesley was asked who he would rather play in the championship.
"It doesn't matter," Wesley said.
"Right answer," Morrill quickly added.
Top-seeded Utah State could never shake the Spartans. A 6-0 run early in the second half gave the Aggies a 44-34 lead with 14:24 to play. It would be the biggest lead for the designated home team.
Despite the vast majority of the fans routing against them, the Spartans, who had upset Hawaii and Idaho on their way to the semifinals, never rolled over. A 9-2 run got them right back in the game as Matt Ballard tipped in a missed shot to pull the Spartans within 50-49 with 7:17 left in the game.
Brockeith Pane, who led the Aggies with 16 points, hit two shots to keep USU in front. Wesley grabbed a blocked shot of Pooh Williams and laid it in to give the Aggies a 56-51 lead with 2:40 left in the contest and received an "M-V-P" chant from the USU students. Wesley missed the two free throws, but came up with some big rebounds down the stretch as USU notched its seventh straight win.
"We've won a lot of basketball games because of our experienced players," Morrill said. "We had a really tough time tonight. We will take this win."
It was the second-lowest shooting performance for the Aggies this season, as they shot 37 percent from the field. They also struggled from long range, making just 3-of-14 (21.4 percent).
"We had a tough time shooting the ball tonight, but I think we will free up and relax a bit tomorrow," Morrill said.
"I will start by congratulating Utah State," SJSU head coach George Nessman said. "It was a hard fought game, and they obviously found a way to win tonight. ... They have had a huge season. If they aren't in the tournament now, then the whole thing is rigged."
Joining Oliver in double-digit scoring was Keith Shamburger with 11 points. Wil Carter grabbed a team-best 10 rebounds.
Nate Bendall matched Wesley on the glass with 12 rebounds.
The Spartans were assessed two technicals in the game - one in each half. The first was issued to Nessman and the second was on Justin Graham. Pane made all four free throws.
"I haven't had a technical foul in the last five years," Nessman said. "I took my tie off inappropriately. I didn't see what Justin did, but I guess he went too far. It's really unfortunate it happened, but it happened."
And what was Morrill's take on the two T's given to the Spartans?
"At the time, we need the points, I know that," Morrill said. "It was a positive to us. Things happen out there and you got to control your emotions."
USU got off to the start it wanted, racing out to a 7-0 lead. Wesley scored 22 seconds into the game, Bendall converted a three-point play, and Pane made a pair of free throws less than two minutes into the contest.
The Spartans answered with an 8-0 run, including back-to-back 3-pointers by Oliver and Shamburger.
"We got the start we wanted, who wouldn't want that," Wesley said. "I think we relaxed and thought it would be easy. San Jose went on their run. So our lead didn't mean anything."
It turned into a back-and-forth affair over the next 10 minutes as the lead changed hands 10 times and there was one tie.
USU used a 6-1 surge to get in front and take a 33-29 lead into the break. The Aggies then opened the second half by slowing building a 10-point lead, only to have the Spartans storm back.
"We'll take this and advance," Morrill said.
Wesley agreed, but added a bit more.
"We're happy we got out with a win, but let's not beat around the bush," Wesley said. "We are here to win the whole thing. We are here for one thing."