LAS VEGAS - Two years ago in the semifinals of the WAC Men's Basketball Tournament, then-sophomore guard Tyler Newbold hit a 12-foot jumper with just over three seconds left to help upend New Mexico State by a point and propel Utah State toward the tourney championship.
Now a senior, it turns out the senior Aggie nicknamed "Horse" is still the pony to bet on - although this time around, Newbold helped prevent a potential game-winning shot rather than shoot one himself.
"It was a hard-fought game, and it came down to the last shot," Newbold said after USU's 58-54 win over San Jose State on Friday night at the Orleans Arena. "I worked my hardest to make it a tough shot, and luckily he missed it. He's been making a lot of those in the previous two games they played, but he missed that one, which was a big sigh of relief."
"He" just happened to be San Jose State's Adrian Oliver, the leading scorer in the WAC and the third-highest scorer in the nation at 24.3 points per game. The senior guard had already helped propel the eighth-seeded Spartans past Hawaii and Idaho with 29- and 28-point performances in the first and second rounds, and his pull-up jumper against the Warriors on Wednesday was the difference in SJSU's 75-74 victory.
Other than the esteemed Jimmer Fredette - who was lighting up the Thomas & Mack Center with 52 points just a few miles to the east at virtually the same time - Oliver was certainly the best choice in Las Vegas to take a potentially game-winning shot.
But while the Spartans couldn't have felt better about having the ball in Oliver's hands with the game on the line, the top-seeded Aggies also had confidence in Newbold to make the all-WAC guard's attempt as difficult as possible.
"Tyler Newbold's an awful good defender," USU head coach Stew Morrill declared simply. "But it's always dangerous because (Oliver) can make a three from halfcourt," he then added with an uneasy chuckle.
Named to the WAC's All-Defensive Team earlier in the week, Newbold drew Oliver in a one-on-one situation after teammate Tai Wesley missed the front end of a one-and-one situation and San Jose State rebounded the ball with less than 30 seconds left and the Aggies clinging to a 56-54 lead. As the Spartans spread the floor, Oliver dribbled the ball along the right side of the court, then he slowly headed toward the top of the key as the clock started to wind down.
While Newbold remained down in a textbook defensive position as Oliver probed for a weakness, Morrill said the plan was actually to have guard Brian Green come over and help with a "blitz."
"We were thinking about running at him from out of the corner and doubling him, but we kept telling Brian to wait because (Oliver) wasn't coming into a scoring area," Morrill explained. "Brian just kind of bluffed at him and we never did get the double team.
"Tyler just did a great job of getting a hand in, and we were fortunate that he missed."
As Oliver unleashed his attempt at a game-winning shot for the second time in three days, Newbold got his left hand in the neighborhood of Oliver's right hand, possibly making all the difference as the ball ended up - according to some relieved first-hand accounts by Aggie fans - going "in and out" of the cylinder before eventually ending up in Wesley's hands with just over three seconds left.
"Once he let it go, it seemed like it hanged in the air for a minute or two," Newbold said.
"I had flashbacks to two nights when I made it," Oliver admitted afterward. "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."
For the game, Oliver finished with 16 points after going just 6-of-19 from the field and 3-of-10 from 3-point range. The senior guard also committed five turnovers while going up against a very active Aggie zone defense, some Pooh Williams (an all-WAC Defensive Team selection a year ago) and a whole lot of Tyler Newbold.
"I wanted to be the guy to guard Oliver in that situation," Newbold said of his final defensive stand. "I pride myself in how I play defense, and I work hard. Whether he made it or not, I knew I was going to be working my hardest to try and make him miss.
"Luckily, he missed and we've advanced - that's the most important thing."
Luck certainly plays a big role whenever you're surrounded by the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, but it's USU's commitment to the blue-collar fundamentals of basketball like defense that has the Aggies once again within one win of an automatic trip to the NCAA Tournament.