Defending WAC tournament champion Utah State ousted in quarterfinals

Mar 9 2012 - 3:12pm

LAS VEGAS -- Louisiana Tech didn't even qualify for the Western Athletic Conference tournament a year ago, but time has proven kind to the Bulldogs as coach Mike White has led his team into the WAC semifinals in his inaugural season.

WAC freshman of the year Raheem Appleby scored seven straight points for Louisiana Tech late in the second half, and the Bulldogs held overcame their own mistakes to hold on for a 72-70 win over Utah State on Thursday night in the WAC quarterfinals.

The Bulldogs nearly squandered a 10-point lead with four minutes to go, but did just enough to advance to face top-seed Nevada in the semifinals on Friday night.

Appleby, the Bulldogs leading scorer for the season, finished with 13 points as No. 5 seed Louisiana Tech avenged two losses during the regular season to the Aggies. Trevor Gaskins and Romario Souza led the Bulldogs with 16 points each.

"It's very, very exciting for our guys. It feels very good to win in such a competitive league and it makes it more special doing it against a perennial power, against such a great program as Utah State," White said.

Appleby and his teammates were on target from deep, hitting 8 of 17 3-point attempts after making just 32 percent during the regular season. But La Tech (17-15) was outscored 11-3 over the final four minutes as Utah State had multiple chances to tie in the final 90 seconds but couldn't pull even. Utah State failed to get a final shot off after Gaskins missed his second free throw with 4.1 seconds remaining.

Danny Berger led Utah State (17-15) with 17 points off the bench.

It was far from a perfect closing stretch for either side.

Down 69-59 with 4:03 left after Appleby's three-point play, Utah State scored eight of the next nine points. Berger hit a 3-pointer followed by a trio of free throws from Ben Clifford and Kyisean Reed, and Clifford's basket on the inside cut the lead to 70-67 with two minutes left.

Gaskins hit one of two free throws with 1:40 left but Brockeith Pane scored on a drive 10 seconds later and Tech's lead was two. Gaskins then airballed a deep jumper but the Aggies chance to tie was erased when Medlin was called for charging with 46.9 seconds left.

Utah State chose not to foul and it proved to be the right move as Kenneth Smith's pass deflected off Souza and out of bounds for a turnover. But the Aggies did the same thing when Appleby forced a steal with 22 seconds left.

"Raheem gets a lot of press as the conference freshman of the year, but he is very, very good in many categories," White said. "He doesn't take plays off and he's very competitive in every facet of the game."

But Appleby missed the front-end of a one-and-one and Smith fouled Pane with 6.1 seconds left. The senior - an 80 percent free-throw shooter on the season - hit the first to pull the Aggies within one, but his chance to tie rolled out and went out of bounds to the Bulldogs. Gaskins hit the first free throw and the second bounced off, but Preston Medlin failed to get a final attempt off before the buzzer sounded.

Medlin, the Aggies leading scorer, was held to six points and failed to score in double figures for the first time in 14 games. Brandon Gibson added 13 points for Louisiana Tech before fouling out. Pane finished with 13 and Clifford added 12 for the Aggies.

"We were playing catch up most of the night," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "... Their quickness really bothered us. We just couldn't get them stopped. ... We tried every defense we had and had a hard time guarding them."

Utah State swept the season series; winning 69-65 at Louisiana Tech and routing the Bulldogs by 14 at home in early February. Both teams were playing well heading into the conference tournament, with the Aggies having won four of five and the Bulldogs winning five of six, whose only loss came at conference-champion Nevada in the season finale.

They'll get another shot at the Wolf Pack in Friday's semifinals. Louisiana Tech failed to make the WAC tournament last year under a different format where only the top eight teams qualified.

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