With an NCAA Tournament bid on the line, Nevada struggled on the offensive end of the floor and
watched Utah State capture a 72-62 victory in Saturday night’s Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship game.
“We got outplayed,” Nevada coach Mark Fox said. “I’m very disappointed for our team. I’m very disappointed for our fans. It wasn’t our night.”
Nevada connected on only 22 of 72 field-goal attempts (30.6 percent). It was the Wolf Pack’s worst shooting night of season and leaves it out of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year after a run of four straight trips to the ‘Big Dance.’ Conversely, Utah State is getting its sixth NCAA tourney invitation in the last 10 years.
Nevada’s two-leading scorers, Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson, finished a combined 10-of-33 shooting in the title tilt. Johnson had 20 points and Babbitt finished with eight. However, Johnson had 12 in the final two minutes after Nevada was already trailing by double digits.
“We just couldn’t finish,” Fox said. “This is taking nothing away from Utah State, but it’s our second game in under 24 hours. We had a lot of little easy looks at the basket. We could not finish...We were fatigued. That was probably part of it. Being young physically is probably more of a factor.”
Nevada, which trailed by 17 points midway through the first half, opened the second half down by just five, 28-23. A dunk by Johnson less than a minute and a half into the second half got the Wolf Pack within four, 29-25. The score was never that close again.
Utah State (30-4), which is second in the nation in wins, put the game away by outscoring Nevada 25-10 over the next 11 minutes.
Tai Wesley’s tip-in at the 7:39 mark of the second half gave Utah State a 54-35 lead, its biggest of the game.
“We did a really good job of controlling tempo, playing at the speed we wanted to play at,” Utah State coach Stew Morrill said.
Nevada (21-12) hit seven 3-pointers in the final seven minutes of the game to make the score respectable. After trailing by 19, Nevada cut the Utah State lead to nine, 71-62, following a three-point play by Babbitt. However, that left just 34.7 ticks on the clock and Utah State already smelling victory.
Gary Wilkinson, the WAC’s regular season player of the year, put up 21 points to lead all scorers Saturday. He was also named the WAC tourney MVP. Wesley added 14 points and pulled down 11 rebounds to help the USU cause. Jared Quayle and Pooh Williams chipped in 15 and 12 points for the Aggies.
“You can talk all you want, but when it comes down to it, you have to step up and make it happen on the court,” Wilkinson said.
While Nevada shooters were busy missing shots, Utah State had a solid night from the field, hitting on 25 of 50 shots (50 percent). Utah State outscored Nevada 36-22 in points in the paint. The Aggies also held an edge at the charity stripe. They made good on 18 of 26 foul shots. Nevada was perfect from the free-throw line but got off just 10 attempts. The Aggies additionally out-rebounded the Wolf Pack 44-34.
The two teams traded momentum runs in the first half. Through the first 10 minutes Utah State was about as dominant as it could be. Wilkinson knocked down a 12-foot jumper that gave Utah State a 21-4 lead with 10:02 showing on the first-half clock.
“We’ve just gotten off to a great start in every game in this tournament and tonight was another night that certainly helped us,” Morrill said.
Neither team scored over the next two-plus minutes, but then Nevada finally found an offensive rhythm. Wolf Pack point guard Armon Johnson converted on a three-point play with 7:39 remaining before halftime. Prior to that, Nevada had connected on just 2 of 23 shots from the floor.
However, Johnson’s bucket and foul shot seemed to get the Wolf Pack going. It kicked off an 11-0 Nevada run. Ahyaro Phillips’ tip-in capped the spurt and trimmed Utah State ‘s lead to 21-15 at the 4:36 mark of the first half.
Nevada got as close as four, 25-21, when reserve Joey Shaw picked up a steal at halfcourt and dropped in a layup and free throw, converting his own three-point play with 1:26 left before halftime.
It looked like Utah State might take a seven-point lead into the locker room at the intermission, but it was not meant to be. The Aggies led 28-21, but were whistled for a loose-ball foul while scrambling to grab a rebound. Nevada’s Dario Hunt took advantage. He canned both foul shots in the bonus situation and the scoreboard read 28-23 at the game’s midway point.
“At halftime we were trying to get each other up, trying to tell each other it was going to be all right, not to give up,” Johnson said.
Joey Shaw and Malik Cooke tossed in 10 points apiece in Nevada’s losing effort.
NOTES — Nevada is now forced to sit and wait to hear its postseason fate. The Wolf Pack is hoping for an invitation to either the National Invitation Tournament or College Basketball Invitational (CBI). The NIT will release its field Sunday night at 6 p.m. following the NCAA Tournament’s selection announcement. Immediately after the championship loss, Nevada athletic officials announced they had put in bids to host a game in either the NIT or CBI. If Nevada is picked to host a game tickets will go on sale Monday morning. For more information, go to www.nevadawolfpack.com.