Perhaps the Aggies were thinking about celebrating the arrival of 2011 a bit early.
Whatever was on the minds of the Utah State men's basketball team Friday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, it didn't translate into good play in the first half against San Jose State. A fired up head coach got their attention at intermission.
"Coach was on us at half," said Aggie forward Tai Wesley, who had 16 points and eight rebounds in USU's 80-71 Western Athletic Conference win. "He really chewed us seniors. He said we weren't playing with enough emotion. ... Coach really lit a fire under our butts. He was yelling and kicking things in the locker room. We had to respond."
Morrill was not happy and was still upset 20 minutes after the game.
"Pretty soon someone around here is going to believe me when I tell them we are not a real good basketball team," Morrill said. "We are a very average WAC team right now. We better get better or else we will finish in the middle of the WAC or lower. That is a fact."
The first 20 minutes of the game had the coach fuming.
"We were atrocious in the first half," Morrill said. "We played with no energy or heart. Thank goodness we responded in the second half and came out and guarded them a little bit. ... We are not where we should be, but we're going to try and fix that. That is my job."
Morrill said he was as angry as he can remember being at USU.
"They did not listen to my whole pregame speech," Morrill said. "I don't know what they are assuming. ... We have to step up if we want to be a contender."
In one of the last NCAA men's basketball games of 2010, it was a back-and-forth affair for 27 minutes. Utah State (13-2, 2-0 WAC) used two big runs late in the second half to ring in the new year in a joyful manner. Runs of 8-0 and 12-2 were more than enough for the Aggies to win their eighth straight.
"When you are playing against a team that knows how to win, it can be tough," SJSU head coach George Nessman said. "They had a run in the second half where they hit some 3's. That was the difference in the game. Frankly, this is a team that just knows how to win.
"We missed a 3 on our end, and they came down and (James) Walker hit a 3 and that was a huge swing in the game."
The trey by Walker was part of the 12-2 run. Wesley capped it with a free throw, giving the Aggies a 68-56 lead with 6:08 to play. Wesley would give the hosts their largest lead of the game with 3:33 left in the contest on a layup, 75-61.
"We are just fortunate to be 2-0," Wesley said. "We need to get better."
Brockeith Pane led the Aggies with a game-best 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting. Pane kept USU in the game in the first half with 15 of his points. He also had a season-high seven assists and grabbed five rebounds. But he also had six turnovers.
"I had far too many turnovers and I let people drive by me," Pane said. "... I have a lot to improve on."
But what about that first half?
"Tai was in foul trouble, so I had to carry us a little bit (offensively)," Pane said. "I was just taking what the defense was giving me."
Joining Wesley and Pane in double-figure scoring was Tyler Newbold with 11 points. Newbold also had a game-high nine rebounds.
USU shot 50 percent from the field. It was the first time the Spartans (8-5, 0-2) have allowed an opponent to shot 50 percent this season.
The Spartans were led by Adrian Oliver with 18 points. Oliver, who leads the WAC in scoring at 24.9 ppg, was not feeling well and did not practice Thursday. Justin Graham added 15 points, while Brylle Kamen netted 13.
"I really feel like we played well in a very tough place to play," Nessman said. "We stayed composed as a team and played well in a very tough place to play. This is why they have won the league three years in a row. They are tough to beat anywhere and nearly unbeatable at home."
USU scored the first seven points of the game and held SJSU scoreless for more than four minutes to get things started Friday night.
The Spartans then took their turn and scored nine unanswered points to take their first lead of the game, 11-9, with 12:33 left in the opening half. It would be a back-and-forth affair the rest of the first half.
The visitors put together a 7-1 run to take their largest lead of the first half, 22-17, when Calvin Douglas hit a 3-pointer with 9:11 left before intermission.
"San Jose State did a good job," Morrill said. "They frustrated us and drove by us."
Pane jump-started a 9-1 Aggie surge with a jumper, but neither team could maintain momentum for long. After eight lead changes and eight ties, USU took a 39-38 lead into the break.
There were 28 fouls called over the first 20 minutes, with 15 of them coming against the Aggies.
"The first half was very difficult to get a flow," Wesley said. "It was tough. ... I got two offensive fouls. One was a frustration foul. I need to eliminate those dumb fouls."
Morrill would certainly agree with that.
There were 10 lead changes and the game was tied 12 times.
Wesley sparked the 8-0 run with a spin move, and Pane gave the Aggies the lead for good with a three-point play with 12:48 to play. Even a technical on Pooh Williams didn't derail USU.