MORAGA (AP) — Brady Jardine provided the exclamation point on the signature win that No. 25 Utah State had been seeking all season.
Tai Wesley and Brockeith Pane overcame horrid first halves to score 22 points apiece and Jardine’s dunk capped the 75-65 victory over Saint Mary’s on Saturday night that bolstered the Aggies position for an NCAA tournament bid.
“There’s so much talk about us struggling to win big games and not being able to beat top opponents” Jardine said. “For us to come in tonight and beat them on their own floor, we didn’t care that we showed the nation we can beat people. But for us as a team to know that we can go into a place and beat a Top 25 team, that’s a defining moment.”
The Aggies (25-3) rallied from a 10-point deficit early in the second half by the strong inside play of Wesley and an effective zone defense that forced the Gaels (23-6) to miss 16 of their first 20 shots in the second half for their first home loss of the season.
Utah State accomplished exactly what it wanted in the BracketBuster, earning its first win all season against a team currently in the top 100 of the RPI. That could be crucial if the Aggies lose next month’s WAC tournament in Las Vegas and need an at-large bid to the tournament.
“This is a very special win for our guys,” coach Stew Morrill. “I couldn’t be prouder of how they responded after the half. We got our butt kicked in the first half, we couldn’t score from the post. We struggled and their defense is really good. The second half we turned the tables.”
Wesley made just one of six shots and Pane committed six turnovers in the first half as the Aggies fell behind by 12 points. They trailed 39-29 early in the second before Wesley took over despite a broken nose that he re-aggravated a couple of times during the second half and a brief run-in with Matthew Dellavedova.
He scored 10 points during a 19-2 run that gave the Aggies a nine-point lead as Saint Mary’s struggled to get anything going offensively. Wesley made seven of nine shots in the second half as Saint Mary’s did not double-team him.
Pane played turnover-free ball after halftime and hit his first 3-pointer in more than a month.
“They were getting the best of me in the first half,” Wesley said. “Coach took a little jab at me and said, ‘You’ve been waiting for this your whole career. You’re one-on-one, what are you doing? The second half I came out and just played better.”
Saint Mary’s lost second leading scorer Rob Jones, who fouled out with 8:56 to go, and fell behind 59-49 on a deep 3-pointer by Pane with just under 7 minutes to go.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Clint Steindl got the crowd back into it for the Gaels before Jardine silenced them with the emphatic dunk over Mitchell Young for a three-point play that made it 68-59 with 2:26 to go.
“That kind of shut up the crowd and put it away a little bit,” Jardine said. “It’s fun to be able to get dunks like that. More than anything, that win was a blast.”
The second-half collapse was all-too familiar for the Gaels, who blew an 11-point second-half lead at San Diego on Wednesday before falling to a team that had only beaten three other Division I teams this season and also got blown out in the second half at Portland last month.
“We have to fix whatever it is that makes us a 40-minute ballclub,” coach Randy Bennett said. “We’ve done that this year but the last two games, three of the last six, we’ve had this problem. We have to be more consistent team defensively … and then that will help us offensively.”
The two losses have put the Gaels’ hopes of making it to consecutive NCAA tournaments for the first time in school history in peril. They now might need to win the WCC tournament in Las Vegas next month to feel secure heading into selection Sunday. Saint Mary’s can still clinch the regular season conference title by beating Gonzaga at home Thursday night, ending the Bulldogs’ 10-year run as WCC champs.
“Obviously, two losses hurts but our team’s pretty mature and we’ll turn the page,” said Mickey McConnell, who led the Gaels with 16 points. “We know we have to get back to work and work some things out and tighten some things up.”
The Gaels went on a 20-2 run after Jones went to the bench in the first half to take a 34-22 lead. McConnell got his first points of the game on an off-balance 3-pointer just before the shot clock expired to give Saint Mary’s its first lead of the game. He hit a 32-footer the next trip down the court and added a difficult jumper from the foul line during the spurt.
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