LAS VEGAS — Teams from Texas are taking over the Western Athletic Conference basketball tournament, and one of the victims Thursday was Utah State, which lost to UT Arlington 83-78 at Orleans Arena.
Earlier in the day, the top two seeds in the tourney, Louisiana Tech and Denver, were shocked by No. 9 seed UTSA and No. 7 seed Texas State and eliminated from the tournament. It was a golden opportunity for the Aggies to perhaps get to the finals and even win the tournament and earn an unexpected NCAA berth, but they couldn’t pull off the victory.
“They’ve gotten us three times, so you’ve got to say they’re the better team,’’ said USU coach Stew Morrill after losing to the Mavericks for the third time this year. “We shot a high percentage, but we turned it over too much. It was frustrating that we came all the way back and couldn’t finish it off. We were just not quite good enough tonight.’’
The loss eliminates the Aggies (21-10) from the WAC tournament and leaves them to await a possible invitation to a postseason tournament other than the NCAA tournament, although Morrill isn’t expecting one.
“I think we’re done,’’ Morrill said. “I don’t think we’ll be given an opportunity and on the slight chance that we are invited with all the injuries and everything ... maybe we should just shut it down.’’
Morrill said his team would have been excited to play in the NCAA or perhaps the NIT, but doesn’t think his squad would consider the CBI or CIT tournaments, “even though the CIT has been great to us.’’
For UT Arlington, a semifinal date awaits against UT San Antonio on Friday at 9 p.m. Coach Scott Cross got a kick out of the fact that the three WAC teams from Texas all won Thursday.
“It’s a great thing for us all to advance, but who would ever have expected that?’’ he said.
Kevin Butler led the Mavericks with 23 points and made a big steal with just under 10 seconds left, anticipating a pass by Roland and scoring a layup in the final seconds when the Aggies were hoping to put up a tying 3-pointer.
Karol Gruszecki added 17 points for the Mavericks, including four 3-pointers, while Jordan Reves and Cameron Catlett added 12 points apiece.
The Aggies had a balanced attack, led by Jarred Shaw with 20 points and Spencer Butterfield with 19. Ben Clifford and TeNale Roland each finished with 16.
USU actually had an outstanding night shooting, with 58.1 percent from the field on 25 of 43, and also made 9 of 19 from 3-point range. However, turnovers, especially early in the game, really hurt them. The Aggies had five turnovers on their first six possessions and fell into a big hole that took much of the game to climb out of.
The Aggies, who came into the tournament as the No. 5 seed, got off to a horrible start, with all those turnovers off pressure from the Mavericks and fell behind 10-2. Meanwhile the Mavericks were hot from the field making 11 of their first 18 shots and pushing the lead to 27-9 at the 9:28 mark when Reves made a layup.
USU started clawing its way back into the game behind Butterfield, who scored 14 first-half points, as the Aggies closed within 11 at 40-29 at halftime.
The Aggies started fast in the second half to cut the lead to six in the opening two minutes and pulled within two at 50-48 on an inside basket by Clifford. A couple of minutes later Clifford gave the Aggies their first lead of the night with a 3-pointer from the right corner to make it 53-52 with 11:50 left.
Gruszecki hit a pair of 3-pointers to stake the Mavericks to a 60-56 lead with just under 10 minutes left.
After that, the lead went back and forth four times before the Mavericks went ahead permanently, 72-70, on a 3-pointer by Shaquille White-Miller with 2:48 left. Then Gruszecki drained a 3-pointer to extend the lead to five.
A three-point play Shaw cut USU's deficit to two points, 77-75, with 1:04 left, but Catlett and Butler hit free throws to make it 80-75. Clifford sank his fourth 3-pointer of the night to cut the lead to 80-78 and after Butler made one of two free throws, the Aggies had a chance to tie it. However, Butler then made the game-clinching steal.
“I’ve never seen a year like this,’’ said Morrill, who lost two of his top players, Preston Medlin and Kyisean Read, to injuries in January as well as Danny Berger to a heart problem in November. “It has been a trying season on all of us, but we didn’t go away and hide. We had injury after injury and hopefully we’ve got our share of injuries out of the way for the next several years.’’