Ags lose 2 in row, grip on Big West title

BIG WEST CHAMPS!

NORTHRIDGE, Calif. — Your mother always taught you to share, didn't she?

Utah State's Aggies shared everything Saturday night in the Matadome at Cal State Northridge. They shared the ball with their hosts, er, tormenters, making a season-high 25 turnovers, 19 in the first half against a Matador defense that was anything but that old cliche and made 16 steals in the game.

And then they shared the Big West Conference regular-season championship with Cal Irvine by losing their second game in a row, the first time all season that they've lost two in a row.

An opportunistic Northridge rode all those turnovers to a 19-point first-half lead and then held off a sustained Aggie charge that cut the lead to one in a 62-54 upset that left USU 21-6 and 13-5 and tied with Irvine for the Big West regular-season title.

"That last hump we had to get over, we didn't get over," said Aggie junior forward Toraino Johnson, who had eight points and eight rebounds.

"Now we've lost the last two in a row, but we're OK," Johnson said. "Shake it off. That's just what we've got to do. Shake it off."

USU opens the Big West Tournament Thursday at 3:30 p.m. MST at Anaheim as the No. 1 seed because of tiebreakers over Irvine, and it will play eighth-place Idaho, which finishes its season today at Pacific.

For the first time in many years, the tournament is seen as a wide-open deal. "There are six, maybe more, teams that can win it," said Aggie coach Stew Morrill, whose team has won the last two and three of the last four.

"Everybody thinks they can win it," said Northridge coach Bobby Braswell, whose team has now split with everyone in the league except Santa Barbara, despite its 12-15, 11-7 record.

Losing their last two games is no way to get excited about going into a tournament, but, "to me," said Aggie guard Ronnie Ross, "if you win so many games in a row (USU had an eight-game win streak), you're going to be due for a loss, so it's kinda like, in a good way, that we got a loss so when the tournament comes we can win it because we just lost. It might be a good thing."

Ross still felt downhearted. "It's kinda disappointment that we lost two in a row, and not getting the title outright, but at the beginning, nobody expected us to be at the top of the league anyway, so that's a great accomplishment," he said.

Back-to-back Ross 3-pointers brought the Aggies within one at 48-47, but he went for a ball fake and fouled and then missed another three just seconds later as Northridge began rebuilding its lead.

But that was the story of the game for the Aggies, at least after that 18-point first half, their lowest-scoring half since December 1999 when they had 14 at Northern Arizona. They would methodically move closer, cutting the lead to single digits, then seven, then five, then three. But each time, Northridge found enough steam to hold them off and enlarge its lead.

By the time USU got within one, it was weary, and Morrill seemed to be understanding about it. "I thought we ran out of gas a little, we had to work so hard," he said.

Like Ross, Morrill simply looked back on a team he had thought would be well down in the Big West pack with just one returning starter and instead came out on top again, and he was satisfied with the product.

"We're going to be positive and upbeat about what we've accomplished and go forward," said Morrill, who had warned all week that Northridge was far better and quicker than it had been when these teams first played on Dec. 20 in Logan and the Aggies won 73-56.

"It kind of stunned us a little; they was quicker than we thought," said Johnson.

But the Aggies are going to let this one go, he said. They'll feel bad but shed no tears. "We're regular-season champions. That's what we're going to call ourselves. We've earned the right to do that," Morrill said.

Northridge's Ian Boylan led scorers with 16 points, and Markus Carr had 14 points, seven assists and six steals to cement his league championship in the two latter categories. USU had four players in double figures led by 12 each from Desmond Penigar and Ross, and Penigar added seven rebounds.

NOTES: CollegeInsider.com named Morrill its Big West coach of the year and Brown its player of the year on Friday. Morrill has won two of USU's four regular-season BWC championships, and Brown is the winningest Aggie ever with 92 and surpassed the 1,500-career point mark Thursday.


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