Utah State dashes Pack’s NCAA tournament hopes | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Utah State dashes Pack’s NCAA tournament hopes

Joe Santoro, Tribune News Service

RENO ” The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team discovered on the biggest night of the season that youth doesn’t always translate into energy and enthusiasm.

“It was our second game in less than 24 hours,” Pack coach Mark Fox said after a 72-62 loss to the Utah State Aggies in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship game Saturday night at Lawlor Events Center. “We had a lot of easy looks at the basket early in the game and couldn’t finish. Fatigue was certainly a part of it.”

Utah State, now 30-4, earned the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament by winning its first WAC Tournament title. The Wolf Pack, 21-12, received an invite Sunday from the College Basketball Invitational. Nevada plays host to University of Texas at El Paso at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets range from $15 to $25.

Fox’s team will miss the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year after making it four years in a row. “Playing in the postseason would certainly be important for this team to continue to grow. Our kids certainly deserve to keep playing.”

Continued growth, Fox said, is what the Wolf Pack needed against the Aggies.

“They had a guy who was 26-years-old,” Fox said, referring to Utah State center and WAC Most Valuable Player Gary Wilkinson, who scored a game-high 21 points. “Luke (Babbitt) is 19, Malik (Cooke) is 19. Physical maturity was a factor in this game. No doubt about it.”

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Utah State coach Stew Morrill just smiled when told Fox said his team was more mature and physical.

“Whatever,” Morrill said. “Whatever the difference was we’ll take it. It’s just nice to hear that we are physical and mature. We always like to be mature.”

The Wolf Pack’s youth was never more evident than in the first 10 minutes of the game when Utah State raced to a 21-4 lead. The Pack, which recovered from a 21-9 deficit the night before against Louisiana Tech, missed 21 of its first 23 shots and didn’t score until 6:30 into the game on a tip-in by Ahyaro Phillips.

“We just didn’t physically answer the bell tonight,” Fox said.

“It’s very frustrating when you can’t knock down shots,” said Pack guard Armon Johnson, who missed 11 of his first 13 shots. “I felt I let my team down.”

Johnson, who rallied in the final nine minutes to finish with 20 points, wasn’t the only Wolf Pack player to miss shots when the game still was close. Babbitt missed his first seven shots and Brandon Fields missed all eight of his shots on the night.

The Wolf Pack made just 21 percent (8 of 38) of its shots in the first half and 31 percent for the game.

“You know, I don’t know if we had anything to do with it,” Morrill said. “I know when we miss shots I like to think the other team had something to do with it. But maybe it was just our time. This is our fourth year in the WAC and we’ve been to three championship games all on the floor of the opposing team. So maybe this was just our time.”

Despite the slow start and despite the fatigue that comes with playing past 11 p.m. the night before, the Wolf Pack found itself right back in the game at halftime. The Pack discovered its energy and its shot, outscoring Utah State 19-7 over the final 9:30 of the half to trail just 28-23 at halftime. Joey Shaw hit a big 3-pointer and had a steal and a layup, Phillips had another tip-in and Cooke and Dario Hunt each put back offensive rebounds to key the comeback.

“I just think we finally hit some shots,” said Cooke, who finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, six steals and two blocks.

All of the energy and momentum built up during that final 9:30 in the first half, though, never returned in the second half. A dunk by Johnson cut the Aggies lead to 29-25 early in the second half but Wilkinson scored six quick points inside, Pooh Williams had a three-point play and two free throws and Stavon Williams hit a 3-pointer as the Pack found itself down 49-32 with 9:40 left.

“When it comes right down to it, you just have to go out there and step up and make it happen,” Wilkinson said. “That’s what we did. There’s no better feeling in the world.”

The Pack found its long-distance shooting range when it was too late. In the final seven minutes, Johnson had three 3-pointers, Cooke had two and Burleson and Babbitt had one each. The closest the Wolf Pack would come, though, was 71-62 with 35 seconds to go after a layup and a free throw by Babbitt.

“Luke played with a sore back the whole game,” said Fox of the Galena High freshman who scored eight points in 31 minutes on 3-of-12 shooting. “It’s something we haven’t talked about but it’s been bothering him all year. He tried like crazy to play through it but it bothered him.”