LAS VEGAS, Nev. - The Colorado State men's basketball team stormed back from a double-digit first-half deficit to take an 11-point lead of its own late in the second half of the first game of the 2014 Reese's Mountain West Men's Basketball Championship Wednesday afternoon, only to watch the Aggies (18-13) close the game on a 19-5 run over the final 2:10 to eliminate the Rams (16-16).
"I thought we were the tougher team for 38 minutes, unfortunately it's a 40 minute game," said Head Coach Larry Eustachy following the Rams' heartbreaking loss. "Give Utah State all the credit. We just couldn't make the plays down the stretch, and they certainly did, so they deserved to win."
The Aggies jumped out to an 18-9 lead just more than 6 minutes into the contest, thanks to a trio of three-pointers - one each from Spencer Butterfield, TeNale Roland and Preston Medlin - and the lead was extended to 10 points at the 9:45 mark when Jalen Moore sank a pair of free-throws for Utah State.
That's when the Rams made their run, behind a monster effort from redshirt junior guard Dwight Smith who started his first game since Feb. 25, 2012, in place of injured big man Gerson Santo (broken hand). The Rams closed the half on a 17-9 run which included eight points from Smith and five more from freshman guard Carlton Hurst, and the team's went in the locker room knotted, 31-31.
Smith, who redshirted last season during the Rams' second consecutive NCAA tournament run and had played in just 17 of the Rams' 31 games this season due to injury, finished with career bests of 21 points and eight rebounds, both game highs.
"Dwight just showed everybody that was watching what he's going to bring to the table next year," said junior guard Jon Octeus, who finished with 19 points and also pulled down eight boards. "He's been battling injuries all season. It was nice to see him out there having fun, playing how we know he can play."
The Rams' lead reached 11 points with 2:40 to play, following an Octeus layup and a pair of J.J. Avila free-throws on back-to-back possessions.
The Aggies answered with the first of four late three-pointers to cut the lead to eight. But after a pair of Octeus free-throws, the Rams still looked to be in control with a 10-point lead and just move than 2:00 to play.
"We got too comfortable; mental errors, just let up," said Smith after the game. "Coach (Eustachy) told us it would be another game the last 2 minutes because they make shots. They did exactly what he said."
Roland, who finished with 14 points, including 4-of-5 from three-point range, hit eight of the Aggies next 11 points, including a three-point dagger that cut the Rams' lead to 66-65, with 42 seconds to play, and prompted an exchange on the court that led to a technical foul against the Rams' Daniel Bejarano, who was held to just five points but recorded seven rebounds and a game-high six assists on an off-shooting night (2-for-17).
USU's Butterfield hit the ensuing pair of free-throws to take a 67-66 lead, with 40.7 seconds to play. He added four more from the charity stripe in the final 15 seconds, after a pair from Moore, to cap off the Rams' late-game letdown.
"What I told him after the game, it's a great learning experience, you know," said Eustachy of his postgame conversation with Bejarano. "That's why we try to put our players in tough situations in practice so those things don't happen. But it happened. The only thing you can do is learn, as I continue to learn as a coach. You can learn as a player. You know, it's a tough learning experience."