Las Vegas • First-round victories came easily in Utah State coach Tim Duryea’s first two trips to the Mountain West basketball tournament. The Aggies made life much tougher for themselves Wednesday afternoon, before surging past Colorado State.
USU’s 76-65 victory, featuring a 26-point turnaround, sends the Aggies into Thursday’s quarterfinals against No. 2 seed Boise State (7 p.m. MST) at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“We were sluggish to start,” said Duryea, whose team trailed 20-5 about 10 minutes into the game, while missing 10 straight shots from the field. “I don’t know if it was nerves or what it was, but we were flat. No energy on either end of the floor, and they took advantage of that.”
As coaches tend to do, Duryea credited the Aggies’ defensive work for their recovery. His theory had merit, as USU kept the Rams from building any more of a lead. The Aggies gained some control of the game, even though they trailed 35-33 at halftime.
Sophomore guard Koby McEwen scored 25 points for the Aggies (16-16), who needed the 12 points that senior guard Julion Pearre delivered in the first half. Pearre made four straight 3-pointers after enduring an injury-plagued season, helping the Aggies make up their 15-point deficit in barely more than eight minutes.
Pearre finished with 14 points, topping his previous season high of 12 against Life Pacific. Dwayne Brown Jr. contributed 15 points and eight rebounds for the Aggies. Brown and Pearre fulfilled Duryea’s wish that two players from a group of four — Daron Henson and Diogo Brito being the others — would complement top scorers McEwen and Sam Merrill, who posted all of his 11 points in the second half.
Pearre “was great,” McEwen said. “We needed it, especially because a lot of us couldn’t seem to make a basket. … He kept us in the game, really. I’m proud of Julion, I’m happy for him. We needed that really bad.”
Pearre’s flurry helped the Aggies make 20 of 30 shots in a stretch that followed their 1-of-11 start. USU outscored Colorado State 51-31 in that period, and then produced the game’s last eight points as the Rams went scoreless for the final four minutes.
USU had beaten Wyoming 88-70 in the first round in 2016 and defeated San Jose State 90-64 last March, before losing to the tournament’s No. 1 seed in the quarterfinals each year.
The Rams (11-21), playing for their third head coach this season, thrived from 3-point range early in the game. But they cooled off, and USU played good interior defense, as CSU made only 37.7 percent of its 2-point attempts. The Aggies were not sharp from the outside, but they converted 67.7 percent of their 2-point shots as McEwen, Brown and Merrill drove effectively and scored off the dribble.
USU now has reached the quarterfinals in all five years of membership in the 11-team conference. The Aggies never have gone past that stage, but they’ll take some confidence into the matchup with Boise State. USU led the Broncos by nine points midway through the second half before losing 71-67 in Boise, Idaho, in January and then won 71-65 last month in Logan.
“What really helps us out is we know we can play with them,” McEwen said. “And we have the utmost confidence in ourselves that we can be on the same court as Boise, no matter what the standings are. Our guys know that and believe that.”