Shortly after the Aggies had just recorded their biggest win of the 2010-11 men's basketball season, the subject of national respect came up.
Utah State beat Saint Mary's on the Gaels' home court Saturday night, 75-65. Saint Mary's had not lost in its sweat box of a gym for 19 games until Saturday. The Aggies overcame a nine-point halftime deficit and owned the second half in a very hostile environment. Plus, the game was broadcast on ESPN2, so people across the country were able to witness it.
Surely this all had to be good for USU, right?
Aggie head coach Stew Morrill didn't really want to address talk of locking up at the very least an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. He acknowledged it was a big win and he was very proud of his team, but would leave the speculating to us media types.
Several Aggies, however, did expound a bit when asked about the win on Saturday.
"There is so much talk about us struggling with big games and not being able to beat top opponents, so for us to come in and beat them on their own floor," forward Brady Jardine said. "We don't care that we showed the nation we can beat people, but for us to know that we can go into a place and beat a Top 25 team, that's a defining moment. We don't care what people outside think. That was huge."
Shortly after that comment, Jardine was asked about the Aggies being off the bubble. His reply was not surprising.
"It might help, might not," Jardine said. "We never know what the national media may say or think. We do know that we need to take it one game at a time. We are going to enjoy this one for a day, then start getting ready to finish off the conference championship. It might help, might not. As far as what it did for us as a team, I think it is going to pay dividends."
As far as the two national Top 25 polls that come out on Monday, it was a mixed bag. USU dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25, checking in at 26th down a spot from last week, just five points behind No. 25 Xavier. In the USA Today/ESPN poll, USU moved up a spot to No. 23.
"I don't know," said Aggie forward Tai Wesley, when asked after the game Saturday about moving up in the rankings. "It's just nice to be in the Top 25."
I was not surprised to see what happened. St. John's has been playing well lately and has some big wins, so I felt they would move into the Top 25. No teams in the bottom half of the AP rankings lost last week. Saint Mary's was No. 23 in the USA Today/ESPN poll, so USU was bound to move up a spot there.
Rankings are always interesting, but in the end it will be the selection committee that decides the Aggies' postseason fate, if they lose at the WAC Tournament. Thus, USU will use the same approach it has for years, take care of what you can control. Win the conference tournament and then wait to see where you are going to play.
By the way, Bracketology still has the Aggies as a nine seed and playing in Cleveland against UNLV. I'm thinking that will change. If USU wins out, it would have 30 wins and possibly a seed that would have them playing in their home uniforms.
So, do the Aggies feel they are in the Big Dance already?
"Hope so," Wesley said. "It's not something we need to worry about, but you would think so."
The Saint Mary's game is just one. It will not quiet the critics of whether the Aggies are deserving, and Wesley is aware of that.
"We always hear that every year," Wesley said. "You hear weak schedule, strength of schedule, whatever. We're used to that. Honestly, we don't care. We look to win every game."
Which is the right approach, of course. You need to keep an edge, feel you're against the world and need to prove yourself.
USU did check in with an RPI of 19 and a strength of schedule of 106, the best marks this year. The Aggies are known in most basketball circles. Now they need to prove they belong among the best teams.
A tale of two halves
How many people threw in the towel at halftime Saturday?
With Saint Mary's fans standing three-deep behind me at the top of the McKeon Pavilion, I was feeling the pressure and noise. They were friendly fans, so it wasn't all bad. And they had plenty to cheer about after the first 20 minutes Saturday.
USU went 6:17 minutes without scoring and 8:56 between made field goals. The Aggies made just one shot and five free throws over the final 10:30 of the first half.
It was ugly. However, I did think this senior-laden USU team still had a chance, because the deficit was only nine. It could have been a lot worse.
Then the Aggies put together one of their most impressive halves of the season in the second half. Saint Mary's had scoring dryspells of 4:41 and 3:19 as USU went on the game-changing 19-2 run. The Gaels went nine minutes with just one field goal.
"It was one of those deals where the first half was theirs, the second half ours," Morrill said. "... That was on of our worst first halves (of the season) and one of our better second halves. Which one we going to talk about."
Of course the latter, because of the outcome. But looking at the first half makes the comeback that much more impressive.
Some butt kicking
Wesley will tell you his nose is fine. Still, he broke it just two weeks ago.
The forward took several blows to his nose Saturday, one that was in my mind intentional. The fiery forward kept his emotions in check. However, late in the game when Saint Mary's guard Matthew Dellavedova called him out after some physical play under the basket, Wesley was ready to oblige.
"He (Dellavedova) said he was going to kick my a--," explained Wesley when asked about the incident. "He literally said he wanted to kick my a--. I said, ‘OK, let's go.'"
Did Dellavedova realize Wesley is much bigger?
"I don't know, but he was looking me in the chest," Wesley said.
The Saint Mary's fans were on Wesley most of the second half as he scored 17 of his 22 points over the final 20 minutes and was physical in going to the basket and rebounding. There were plenty of boos when Wesley touched the ball.
"It was nice to come in here and get some boos," Wesley said. "I just eat that up.
"... I love it. It's something as a player, if you are getting booed, you are doing something right. You're getting under their skin, you're making them hate you. You can't let it get in your head, got to laugh it off."
Big 3 by Pane
A lot has been made about the dunk by Jardine that made top plays of the day on SportsCenter. It was a huge play, especially since he was fouled and made the free throw after the Gaels had hit back-to-back 3-pointers late in the game.
I feel a bucket a few minutes earlier was also big for USU. Brockeith Pane drilled a 3-pointer to answer a trey by Saint Mary's. Pane agreed with me.
"That was a big three," Pane said. "I haven't hit a three since Fresno State, at their house. ... I was happy to see it go down. I've been putting a lot of time in the gym, shooting the ball."
Yes, Pane had missed the last 18 3-point attempts he had attempted. The last shot he hit from beyond the arc came on Jan. 15, just before halftime. So it had been a while.
I also liked how Pane bounced back from not scoring against Montana Western to putting up 22 points Saturday.