STOCKTON, Calif. — Winning the race while losing the game may not be the ideal way to go, but Utah State coach Stew Morrill was only too happy to accept the No. 1 seed in next week's Big West Tournament and said it meant a lot.
"Oh, of course it does. We won the dang league. If it didn't, we're pretty dang stupid," Morrill said Thursday night after the Aggies blew a 10-point lead with an eight-minute scoring drought and lost 55-51 at University of the Pacific.
That broke a six-game Aggie win streak against the Tigers and USU's eight-game overall win streak. It also likely meant USU must win the league tourney to make a third straight trip to the NCAAs because an at-large bid is probably now out of the question.
By halftime Thursday, the Ags were assured of the No. 1 seed and at least a share of the Big West regular-season title that eluded them last year because second-place Cal Irvine ended its season with an 86-70 loss at Long Beach State in an early game.
The Aggies are 21-5, 13-4 in the league with one game to go, Saturday at Cal State Northridge. The Anteaters are 20-9, 13-5. Even if USU loses at Northridge, and it hasn't lost two in a row this season, it has the tiebreaker — a sweep of Long Beach.
"We didn't want to win (the Big West) like this," said Aggie forward Desmond Penigar, who struggled with early fouls that limited him to eight first-half minutes. That seemed to affect his offense, and he finished with 10 points, taking some admittedly ill-advised quick shots. "We've got to go to Northridge and win it all," he determined.
After Saturday's game, USU will play No. 8 Idaho at 3:30 p.m. MST next Thursday in a tournament quarterfinal at Anaheim Convention Center.
Said senior Tony Brown, "It's always nice to get the No. 1 seed, but we would have liked to win."
Thursday, USU "didn't play very well the second half," Morrill said. "We played hard, but we didn't play any offense. They concentrated on Tony, and we couldn't get anybody else to make shots."
UOP's box-and-one defense against Brown was effective because the Aggies simply didn't execute their plays against it, said Brown and Penigar. USU settled for quick shots instead of running the offense all the way out. "We took some shots that weren't at the right time," Penigar said.
Brown was still the game's leading scorer with 16 points, which gave him 1,502 for his career.
"We didn't make the defense work very hard," he observed about a stretch in which the Ags passed once and shot on four or five straight possessions. They were ahead 37-27 on a Brown tip-in at 17:14 but didn't score again until 9:00; meanwhile, UOP reeled off 15 points to lead 42-37.
Fouls at that point of the second half were 8-1 against the Aggies, and that later allowed the Tigers to stay up when Ronnie Ross's 3-point basket after a Brennan Ray steal cut Pacific's lead to 51-49. UOP's Maurice McLemore drove on Aggie Chad Evans and drew a foul. Being in the bonus gave him two free throws and a four-point lead. The Ags missed four of their last five desperate shots, and Tiger Demetrius Jackson made two free throws with :15 left to ice it. For the game, UOP made 14 of 16 free throws, USU four of eight.
This game pitted the BWC's No. 1 defense against its No. 1 offense. The Ags lived up to their billing, holding the Tigers to 38 percent shooting and 16 points below their average, but, "We just couldn't make shots," said Morrill. USU shot 38 percent, 10 percent below its average. It's only the third time a Morrill-coached Aggie team has lost when holding an opponent below 60 points. It's the first time it's happened this season.