#MWMadness: Utah State Ousts Defending Champion Wyoming from Quarterfinals
By W.G. Ramirez
Special to TheMW.com
LAS VEGAS - The last time Josh Adams held court during the postseason, he led Wyoming to a championship. This year the senior Cowboy road off into the sunset early.
Ninth-seeded Utah State used a powerful first half to eliminate defending champion and No. 8 seed Wyoming, 88-70, in a Wednesday quarterfinal of the 2016 Mountain West Men's Basketball Championship.
Four Aggies scored in double figures, led by Shane Rector, who had 24 points and six rebounds. Chris Smith had 20 points, Jalen Moore scored 19 and Julion Pearre added 14 points and five rebounds.
"I was really proud that we came out and executed well against the zone because it's been a while since we've seen much zone defense, and thought our guys really moved the ball, made the extra pass and then when they had a chance jumped up and knocked shots down," Utah State coach Tim Duryea said. "I really saw no signs of panic whatsoever. And they were chipping away. And we had talked about it, there's going to be a run. You can almost count on that."
Though Utah State closed the game missing five of its last six shots, it was able to hang on for the win, as the Cowboys missed eight of their last nine shots. The Aggies avenged their 84-65 regular-season loss in Wyoming earlier this season.
Utah State's big first half was the storyline, however, as the Aggies shot a blistering 57.6 percent in the first half, hitting 19-of-33 field-goal attempts, including 7-of-12 from long range. The Aggies' 47 points were the most Wyoming allowed in the first half the entire season, and the most the Cowboys had allowed in a Mountain West tournament first half since BYU scored 54 in 2007.
The 47 points also set a Mountain West record for most points scored in a half, topping the previous mark of 46, set by Boise State in 2014.
"(Coaches) told us all year long we were better than what our record said," Rector said. "Coming in we were really confident and we knew what we had to do to get the win. And I think we did that tonight. We got off to a strong start and we didn't really let up."
Said Duryea: "I thought tonight maybe more than any other game the ball kept moving, nobody thought, 'Hey, I've got to take this shot, I've got to make this shot.' "
Utah State set a tournament record for field goals made in an opening round game, connecting on 31-of-64 attempts. The 64 attempts also set a tournament record for most attempts in an opening round game, besting Colorado State's 63 in 2014. The Aggies' 11 made 3-pointers tied a conference tournament record for made threes in an opening round game, a record they set in 2014.
Eight minutes into the game Utah State had a 23-9 lead over the defending tournament champs, as the Aggies opened the game hitting 9 of 14 from the floor, including 4 of 6 from 3-point range. With just under seven minutes to go in the first half, the Aggies opened a 41-16 lead behind 68 percent shooting (17 of 25).
Three turnovers and a 0-for-4 drought by Utah State allowed the Cowboys to go on a 10-0 run, cutting the lead to 41-26 with 4:01 left in the half. The Aggies went into the locker room up by 17, which matched the largest deficit Wyoming had come back from during the regular season, when it defeated UNLV on Jan. 9.
"I thought they played excellent those first eight to 10 minutes," Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt said. "We did not play very well defensively. At halftime I told the guys 'let's spend about 10 minutes, let's grind it a little bit, see if we can cut this thing to 10 points with 10 minutes to play.' "
And though the momentum carried over into the second half, as the Aggies' athleticism and precise shooting out of the gate kept them in front by a wide margin, Wyoming eventually seized some momentum.
The Cowboys made an 11-0 run over a four-minute span midway through the second half, cutting the lead to seven at one point, 63-56 with 9:46 left in the game.
"We put an end to their run and were able to go up by too many points," Moore said. "Basketball is a game of runs. We were up by almost 30 at one point and they were able to chip away. But we were able to keep at a distance that they couldn't reach back."
Wyoming did its best to attack the foul-plagued Aggies, who had six players with three or more fouls with less than seven minutes remaining, but they continued to play smart in the paint and counter with smart shots on the offensive end.
The Cowboys were led by Jason McManamen, who had 23 points, while Adams, who was named the league's player of the year by members of the media, finished with 18 points.
"I'm just happy to go to battle with these guys that are sitting next to me up here, Coach Shyatt, Al Herndon, Jason, the other guys in the locker room," said Adams, who moved into fifth place in school history with 1,819 points. "We were down by 25 and they had a never-say-die attitude. I couldn't be more grateful for a group of guys to play with in my final year."
Utah State will face top-seeded San Diego State at Noon on Thursday.
Willie Ramirez is a Las Vegas-based freelance reporter and Southern Nevada correspondent for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter: @WillieGRamirez