LAS VEGAS – Utah State was able to shake off a bad start to top Colorado State 76-65 in the first round of the Mountain West Conference Championships Wednesday afternoon. After shooting just 1-for-11 from the field to start, the Aggies hit 60 percent of its remaining field goals to advance in the tournament.
Sophomore guard Koby McEwen led all scorers with 25 points. Dwayne Brown Jr. scored 15 and Julion Pearre added 14.
“Coaches and my teammates put me in a great position to be successful,” McEwen said. “I did the easy part by hitting shots.”
CSU’s Anthony Bonner led the Rams with 15. Prentiss Nixon, who scored 26 in the CSU’s victory in Logan earlier this year was limited to 14 Wednesday.
USU’s early missed shots led the team to a 20-5 deficit midway through the first half. Head coach Tim Duryea couldn’t explain why his team started so poorly, but said his team was “sluggish.”
“No energy on either end of the floor,” he said. “…You don’t get away with that too often, but we slipped by today.”
The Aggies finally ended the field goal drought more than nine minutes after it started on a Quinn Taylor dunk. Brown followed it up with a 3-pointer, but the team really started gaining ground on the Rams’ lead thanks to four first-half 3-pointers from Pearre.
McEwen said he was proud of Pearre, and that his team needed someone to step up.
“Especially because a lot of us couldn’t seem to make a basket,” he said. “He came in and hit those 3s. Those are big 3s. He kept us in the game, really.”
Duryea said he noticed more defensive activity and intensity from his team after the midpoint of the first half.
“That really kind of bled through the rest of our game,” he said. “We started getting some stops, stringing those together. We got out on the break, we had a little more life to us offensively and just chipped away at it.”
USU tied the game with less than two minutes remaining in the half, then took its first lead on a McEwen and-1 play less than a minute out of the break. The three points were his first of 14 in the second half. McEwen was instrumental in holding back CSU, which never led in the final 14:48, but trailed by just three points with less than 4:30 to go.
Brown said that even when USU was down, he never worried.
“All we had to do is make sure we stayed together as a team,” he said, “lock in on the defensive side, because the game is scoring more than they do.”
Utah State finished the game strong, scoring the final eight points to secure the second-round matchup against Boise State. The Aggies have played Boise State twice so far. Both games were close, with Boise State winning in Idaho and the Aggies winning in Logan. The game will be played Thursday at 6 p.m.