By Shawn Harrison | Logan Herald Journal
It may not be the real championship, but the Aggies continue to enjoy a deep run in March.
In a very rare Sunday afternoon game for the Utah State men’s basketball team, everything went smoothly. The Aggies were scorching the nets from the get-go and rolled past Oakland University in a high-scoring semifinal game in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in front of 2,092 fans. They blew by the Golden Grizzlies, 105-81, to advance to the CIT championship.
“Our guys are enjoying playing basketball, and we are playing very confidently,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said. “This tournament has been extremely positive for us.”
USU (21-15) will now face Mercer, who beat Fairfield in the other CIT semifinal Saturday night, 65-59. The Aggies will host the Bears (26-11) Wednesday night in the Spectrum in the CIT championship at 7 o’clock.
On Sunday, high-scoring Oakland (20-16) led briefly in the early going, 3-2. But once USU heated up, it was lights out for the visitors. The Aggies shot 63.8 percent from the field for the game and made 12 of 16 from 3-point range.
“Everything looks easy when you make a lot of shots, and we made a lot of shots tonight,” Morrill said. “We really had a hard time stopping them in the first half and did a little better in the second.”
The Golden Grizzlies came into the game as one of the top scoring teams in the country, but it was the Aggies that scorched the nets Sunday. USU had scored 60 by halftime — a school record for points in the first half as far back as records go — and allowed 43. There were seven games this year that the Aggies didn’t even reach 60 points.
“I just took the open looks and knocked them down,” said USU guard Danny Berger, who matched his career-high with 17 points on 5 of 8 shooting, including 5 of 6 from 3-point range. “They were going in.”
Yes, they were. At one point USU had made 23 of its first 30 field goal attempts.
“They were really good,” Oakland head coach Greg Kampe said. “I have a lot of respect for this program and what they’ve done. I’ve watched them from afar for a long time, so to get up close and personal was pretty amazing. They were really, really good tonight.”
And the Aggies were either schooling the Golden Grizzlies in the paint or hitting a 3-point shot over the first 20 minutes. USU shot 9 of 11 from long range in the first half and 24 of 34 overall. Only two field goals weren’t 3-pointers or around the bucket.
“We had a lot of shots go in tonight,” said Aggie forward Morgan Grim, who had his fourth career double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. “The first half was pretty ridiculous. It was fun making a lot of shots, getting the crowd into it and we got an early jump on them.”
USU guard Preston Medlin led the Aggies with a game-best 26 points and a career-high matching nine rebounds. Brockeith Pane recorded his first double-double at USU with 20 points and 10 assists.
“When you look at points and assists and only 11 turnovers, that’s a huge number for us,” Morrill said. “We just played really good offense. … They just had a hard time stopping us, and that was basically the game.”
The Golden Grizzlies were led by Reggie Hamilton, the nation’s leading scorer, with 23 points. Travis Bader added 22.
Hamilton had to work for his points, though. He was 6 of 21 from the field and 7 of 11 from the free throw line, which hurt his 88.5 percent foul shooting coming in. Hamilton did have nine assists.
“I understand this hasn’t been his (Morrill) best year or his best team, but they were prepared tonight,” Kampe said. “I can’t believe they’ve played any better than that this year. We ran into their A-game tonight.”
The Aggies opened the contest on fire, hitting four straight 3-pointers at one point, building a 16-6 lead less than four minutes into the game. USU just kept adding to its lead.
Mitch Bruneel and Grim scored rebound buckets on rare misses as the Aggies strung together a 16-5 run. E.J. Farris capped the surge with a 3-pointer, giving the hosts their largest lead of the first half, 38-17, with 8:13 before the break.
“The pace was pretty high speed there for a while,” Grim said. “We were scoring, so we kept going.”
Even when Oakland went on a 17-7 run — fueled by four 3-pointers and a three-point play — USU kept hitting shots. The Golden Grizzlies got within 11 twice, but the Aggies continued to answer.
“I was worried about getting offensive rebounds, but we didn’t miss much,” Berger said. “… We were shooting it in, that’s for sure. … It was an up-tempo game, and we were scoring. It was a fun one.”
Berger hit two 3-pointers before halftime, and USU took a 60-43 lead into the break.
Oakland hung around for a few minutes in the early going of the second half, but a 10-1 USU run got the crowd energized. Medlin scored on a layup to cap the run, giving the Aggies a 77-55 lead with 13 minutes to play.
Berger gave USU its largest lead of the game, 105-75, after sinking a pair of free throws with 3:20 to play. Both coaches emptied their benches.
The Aggies are enjoying the postseason and are now one win away from claiming some hardware.
“Our goal is to obviously get to the NCAA, but this tournament is good too,” Berger said. “We’re making a run and getting some experience.”
Now the Aggies prepare for one last game.
“Hopefully we’ll have some energy left,” Morrill said. “They know it’s the last game no matter what. It’s weird to be playing the week of the Final Four. We’re excited. … Let’s face it. It’s been great to be at home and have home games.”