LOGAN, Utah — The only neon lights on the main street of this town are attached to fast-food franchises, but Utah State's basketball team is stealing the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. spotlight from Nevada Las Vegas these days.
The Aggies may not have the glitter that accompanies their neighbors to the south--the Rebels are introduced as indoor fireworks explode overhead while Aggie fans show their admiration by showering the court with toilet paper--but it is Utah State that will be in first place when the teams meet Thursday night in Las Vegas.
The Aggies (16-6 overall and 11-2 in the PCAA) won their sixth straight game Saturday night, blowing past UC Irvine, 102-83, in front of 8,162 in the Spectrum.
Utah State had nine days off late in January, and the rest did wonders for the Aggies' shooting touch. In the five games since then, they have shot 64%, 57%, 61%, 54% and 61% from the field.
"We're playing really well right now," said sixth-man Jeff Anderson, who scored 22 points for the Aggies. "We're playing so well it's like we're in a dream."
It seemed more like a nightmare to Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan. Mulligan, who seldom says anything to the officials, tried desperately to get a technical called on him in the second half.
Mulligan stormed out onto the court wildly waving his arms, and when that didn't work, he picked up a plastic trash can from behind the Anteater bench and started to hurl it onto the court. He stopped himself, however, and threw it behind the bench.
"That was the worst officiated game I've seen since I've been in the conference," said Mulligan, who is in his eighth season at Irvine. "But, hell, let's not lose sight of the fact that they played a great game."
Utah State shot 78% from the field in the first half, the best-shooting half in the school's history, and led, 54-43, at the half. The Aggies are 11-0 in games they have led at halftime. Irvine (11-10, 6-6) shot 41%.
"When Irvine beat us down there, they did a great job of getting in the passing lanes, and in our faces on defense," said Utah State Coach Rod Tueller, who announced last week he will step down as coach after the season. "So we spread our offense a bit to get some room to work."
The tactic certainly paid off. Utah State had 14 first-half layups and 10 more in the second.
"We didn't score much off the break, but we did get some good early offense shots," Tueller said. "But still, as well as we were playing, I didn't feel that great about the game with eight minutes left."
Mike Labat's layin with 9:11 remaining pulled Irvine to within 72-70, but the Aggies ran off a 21-5 stretch that put the game out of reach. Fourteen of those points came on layups.
"We got to within two, and that's when the officiating hurt us . . . the non-calls more than the bad calls," Mulligan said. "But (Aggie point guard Kevin) Nixon killed us. We couldn't defend him, and he'd lick us and then just dish it off for a layup."
Nixon, one of six Aggies who scored in double figures, made 7 of 11 field-goal attempts and finished with 18 points and 5 assists. Forward Dan Conway made 6 of 9 from the floor and scored 15 points, guard Reid Newey hit 6 of 10 and had 14 points, center Greg Houskeeper was 6 of 9 for 12 points and Jon Judkins hit 2 of 3 and scored 10.
The only bright spot for Irvine was the play of senior Frank Woods. Mulligan was going to move Woods, averaging fewer than five points a game in his last three outings, from power forward to small forward but was forced to leave him inside when Ed Johansen stayed home with a severe cold. Woods made 7 of 9 field goal tries and scored 20 points before fouling out with 5:45 left.
Wayne Engelstad, whom Tueller calls "an offensive machine that we can't stop," scored 22, but he made just 7 of 19 field-goal attempts. Guard Kevin Floyd added 14 points for Irvine.