LAS VEGAS -- It wasn’t the most beautiful finish, and the Aggies don’t care.
They have a chance to three-peat Saturday afternoon.
That’s right. Utah State is back in the Mountain West Conference Tournament championship game after a very late semifinal win Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center over Colorado State, 62-50.
“It’s hard to win, period,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. ‘And it is times 10 when you get into March. At this time, everybody knows each other and scoring is difficult. Our guys have stayed the course. … I give our guys a lot of credit and hopefully we can keep it going.”
The Aggies (20-7) will take a six-game winning streak into the title game against top-seeded San Diego State. In the first semifinal of the night, the Aztecs held off fifth-seeded Nevada for the third time this season, 77-70. San Diego State advanced to the championship game for the third straight year.
“We respect San Diego State in an amazing way,” Smith said. “... They are very good, and we have the ultimate respect for them. They don’t beat themselves. If you are going to beat them, you have to really earn it. We’ve had some incredible games over the last three years. I expect it to be a slugfest tomorrow.”
USU swept the Aztecs during the regular season and each of the last two titles at the MW Tournament have come against SDSU.
Late Friday night it looked like the Aggies were cruising midway through the second half. They used a 9-0 run to build a 53-37 lead with 11:10 to play. They would score just one more field goal the rest of the game.
USU did not score a field goal over the final nine-and-a-half minutes. The Aggies made seven free throws over that time span and kept the Rams (18-6) at bay.
“That was agonizing,” Smith said. “We were in such a good rhythm for a long time. We got that lead and got out of sorts, maybe a little tentative. We missed on some good looks and missed some opportunities. … Credit them (Rams). Both teams were defending well and getting offensive boards. We did enough to hang on and find a way to win. You don’t get any more victories for beauty points for winning pretty. You take it and move on.”
Colorado State got within 57-50 with four minutes to play, but would not score the rest of the way -- nine empty possessions. One big reason was Neemias Queta as he swatted away four shots down the stretch and finished with a school record nine blocks for the game.
“I thought we played a really good overall game and played really good defense on pretty much the whole team,” Queta said. “We held them to 25 percent from the field, so I feel like that speaks for itself. Against a team like that, it really speaks volumes for how good our defense can become.”
Defense was also on the mind of the Aggie coach.
“I’d like to echo Neemi's thoughts, I thought we really defended hard and well and made life hard for them,” Smith said. “They’re a high-octane offense, they can really get it going and they have a lot of weapons. Of course, it really helps when you have a guy like Neemi that’s there, that has a tremendous feel for the game and really understands the game and understands spacing and timing on both ends of the floor. He’s a big-time presence down there, obviously with the nine blocked shots that he had.”
A steal by Justin Bean, as well as an offensive rebound by the junior in the final minute also helped the Aggies win and advance.
Queta nearly recorded a rare triple-double as he also finished with game-bests in points (18), rebounds (14) as it was his eighth straight double-double. Queta was joined in double-digit scoring by Bean (13) and Brock Miller (11). Bean had a double-double as he grabbed 11 rebounds. Marco Anthony had a game-high five assists, and added seven points and five rebounds. Rollie Worster and Steven Ashworth each had four assists. Worster also grabbed seven rebounds.
Colorado State was led by Isaiah Stevens with 15 points. David Roddy had 12 points and a team-best 10 rebounds.
It took nearly two minutes for the first points to be scored. Bean started a six-point run for the Aggies by hitting a jumper to break up the stalemate. Miller scored off a Worster pass and then found Queta for a bucket. The Rams missed their first seven field goal attempts to start the game.
Colorado State fought back. Over a four-minute span the Rams outscored the Aggies 14-6 to take their first lead of the game 21-19. Roddy scored a layup to put the men in green in front.
There were four lead changes and three ties before halftime. USU used a 6-0 surge to end the opening half. Bean hit two jumpers, and Queta cleaned up a mad scramble in the closing seconds with a layup. The Aggies took a 32-28 lead into the break.
Buckets were hard to come by in the early going of the second half too. USU was able to score seven unanswered as CSU went more than five minutes without scoring. Miller drilled a 3-pointer to give the Aggies a 42-32 lead with 15:07 to play.
The Rams ended their scoring drought with a 3-pointer. But then the Aggies reeled off nine straight points to take their largest lead of the game as Alphonso Anderson drilled two 3-pointers and Queta converted a three-point play.
Then it became a defensive battle to the end.
“At the end of the day, David Roddy’s a really good player and we held him to 3 for 16 from the field, and then did the job on the boards,” Smith said. “In March you’ve got to win a lot of different ways and tonight it was a little bit ugly but effective. Defensive travels and we’re going to see that in a major way tomorrow in the title game against San Diego State.”
Utah State began the day at No. 41 in the NET rankings, up eight spots from Thursday, while Colorado State checked in at No. 48. … The Aggies won the rebound battle, 50-43, for the 27th straight game this season - which is every game this year - and are 72-15 under head coach Craig Smith when that happens. … USU is now 21-4 all-time in conference tournaments as a No. 2 seed, including an 8-1 record in semifinal games. … The Aggies are now 8-0 in the MW Tournament and 12-1 in the month of March under Smith. … Justin Bean moved into a tie with Ed Gregg (26) for 10th in career double-doubles and past Kendall Youngblood (674) to move into 15th in career rebounds with 675. … Bean and Neemias Queta moved into a tie with Eric Franson (36) for third in career 10-rebound games. … Queta passed Mike Santos (748) for career rebounds and is now in ninth with 758. He also now has 211 career blocks, which ranks fourth most in MW history. ... Marco Anthony played a career-high 39 minutes. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Rams, 66-40.
The big man gets the nod as he nearly had a triple-double. Neemias Queta finished with game bests in points (18), rebounds (14) and blocked shots (9). The blocks were a career high. Queta struggled a bit shooting the ball, going 6 of 14 from the field, but made all six of his free throws. The junior played 38 minutes.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
For the second straight game there were no dunks over the first 20 minutes.
Just like Thursday night, Neemias Queta got the first dunk early in the second half. This time he backed in, spun and threw it down. It would be the only dunk of the game.
Season dunk count: Queta 43, Trevin Dorius 7, Justin Bean 7, Marco Anthony 5, Alphonso Anderson 3, Szymon Zapala 2, Sean Bairstow 1, Brock Miller 1.
The Aggies are back in the conference tournament championship game. They will take on top-seeded San Diego State (22-4) at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV at 4 p.m. The game will be broadcast on CBS.