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Scrappy Utah State gets its signature win

MORAGA, Calif. -- Utah State forward Tai Wesley heard the boos that rained down on him at McKeon Pavilion and loved every second of it.

The senior dominated the second half of a BracketBusters game at Saint Mary’s on Saturday night, scoring 17 of his 22 points after halftime and finishing with 11 rebounds to lead the Aggies to a 75-65 win -- a desperately needed victory to silence critics who claimed they hadn’t beaten a proven opponent.

After Utah State (25-3) stopped Saint Mary‘s 19-game home winning streak, Wesley indicated he thought beating the Gaels would lock up an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament should one be needed.

“Hope so,” Wesley said. “You’d think so, but we don’t need to get caught up in that.”

The Aggies trailed by as many as 12 points and were down by nine at halftime, but during the break, coach Stew Morrill told the team it would be feeling great by the final buzzer after they had won. He reminded Wesley that Saint Mary’s wasn’t doubling him in the post and that the preseason WAC player of the year had been waiting his entire career for a night like this one.

Despite making only one field goal in the first half and playing with a broken nose he broke a few weeks ago, Wesley ignored the previous 20 minutes and went to work. He saw his shots start falling, helped three Saint Mary’s post players foul out, and relished the bad guy role in a hostile environment.

On one play, he set a vicious screen that sent Gaels guard Matthew Dellavedova sprawling to the floor, and the two exchanged some words after a break in the action.

“He literally said he wanted to kick my a--,” Wesley said. “I said, ‘Let’s go.’”

Dellavedova, who continued his struggles and went 3-for-10 from the field, said he didn’t remember what was said. The two were quickly separated, but the Saint Mary’s crowd jeered Wesley for the rest of the game. It only stopped when he’d silence the fans with buckets.

“Love it,” Wesley said. “If you’re getting booed, you’re doing something right. You’re getting under their skin. You’re making them hate you.”

Saint Mary’s, which needed the win just as much coming off an RPI-killing loss to San Diego on Wednesday, saw Mickey McConnell get hot in the first half and finish with 16 points, but was limited to 28.6 percent shooting in the second half.

When Clint Steindl drained back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead to six, the Aggies responded with Brady Jardine's back-breaking contested dunk for a 3-point play with 2:26 left.

“We don’t care that we showed the nation we can beat people,” Jardine said. “But for our team to know we can beat a top-25 team on the road, that’s something we’ll remember.”

The Gaels might have to win the West Coast conference tournament to get off the bubble and to guarantee a spot in the Big Dance. Meanwhile, the Aggies have brushed off their critics who say they haven't beaten a notable opponent.

“Weak schedule, strength of schedule, we hear that every year,” Wesley said. “Honestly, we don’t care.”

Morrill went on to list the reasons why this was the signature win the Aggies needed: the Gaels are leading the WCC, had been unbeaten this season at home, and the event is called BracketBusters.

“It must mean something,” Morrill said.