LAS VEGAS (ABC4 Sports) – If there was any doubt whether Utah State deserved a bid to the Big Dance, the Aggies erased it all with a dominating second half performance to beat Boise State in the Mountain West Conference Tournament semifinals.
Max Shulga had 19 points in Utah State’s 72-62 victory, as the Aggies advance to the championship game for the fourth time in five years, all of which have come against #20 San Diego State.
The Aztecs beat San Jose State in the first semifinal of the night, 64-49. San Diego State swept the season series with Utah State. But regardless of the outcome of the championship game, Utah State virtually assured itself of a bid to the NCAA Tournament with its seventh straight win.
Shulga added five assists for the Aggies (26-7), while Steven Ashworth scored 14 points. R.J. Eytle-Rock shot 4 of 6 from the field and 4 for 4 from the line to finish with 13 points.
The Aggies trailed by eight points at halftime, but outscored Boise State in the second half, 44-26.
“Champions always answer,” Ashworth said. “That’s Aggie basketball. You’re going to have games where there’s runs that are made. You’re going to have games where the ball isn’t dropping, you’re turning it over, you’re not playing aggressively, you’re kind of on your heels. That’s what we saw a little bit in the first half. In that second half we saw Aggie basketball.”
Sean Bairstow scored nine points in the first half and Utah State went into the break trailing 36-28. Utah State turned a three-point second-half advantage into a 12-point lead with a 12-3 run to make it 68-56 with 1:06 remaining in the half. Shulga scored 14 second-half points for the Aggies.
“We weren’t as connected as we needed to be in that first half,” said USU head coach Ryan Odom. “Boise State had a lot do with that. We just encouraged our guys at halftime to be us in a lot of ways. Give one another space. Try to work, you know, to get open harder. I think once we began to settle in into the second half, closed the gap a little bit, our guys began to feel some juice there, and you kind of saw how the ending went. It was obviously a positive ending for us.”
After scoring 32 points in the quarterfinals against New Mexico, Taylor Funk was held to just seven points against the Broncos. But the Aggies showed they have an unselfish, balanced attack.
“I think just play how we play,” Shulga said. “We know that we need to move the ball, pass ball to each other, cut. You know, just help each other. Teams don’t win with one guy. Five players on the court, and everyone else on the bench. You know, just move around, pass the ball, and eventually we’ll find our shot.”
Utah State trailed 49-45 with less than 10 minutes to go when Shulga hit a jumper to ignite a game-changing 11-2 run that gave the designated visitors the lead for good.
Eytle-Rock hit a pair of free throws with 7:45 remaining to make it 51-49 for the Aggies. Utah State pushed its advantage out to as many as 12 before settling for the 10-point win.
The Aggies never led in the first half and were tied with the Broncos at 16-apiece with 10:31 left until the break. Boise State seized control from that point with a 10-2 run.
The Aggies shot 40.4 percent from the field (21-of-52), including 31.0 percent from beyond the arc (12-of-24), and 80.8 percent from the free throw line (21-of-26).
Defensively, Utah State held Boise State to 40.0 percent shooting from the field (22-of-55), including 28.6 percent from 3-point range (4-of-14). The Broncos connected on just 63.6 percent of their shots from the charity stripe (14-of-22).
Marcus Shaver Jr. led the way for the Broncos (23-8) with 14 points and eight rebounds. Boise State also got 14 points from Naje Smith. In addition, Tyson Degenhart finished with 13 points.
Utah State and San Diego State will play for the Mountain West Tournament title Saturday at 4:00 p.m.