Utah State lost four starters from last season's team that won the Big West Conference tournament and upset Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Senior guard Tony Brown, the lone returning starter, helped the Aggies advance into familiar territory Friday night by scoring a career-high 29 points in a 69-65 victory over Pacific in a Big West tournament semifinal at the Anaheim Convention Center.
Utah State (23-6), which defeated Pacific in last year's final, is in the championship game for the third year in a row and the fourth time in five seasons. The Aggies play UC Santa Barbara tonight at 9 for the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"These guys expected to be here," Utah State Coach Stew Morrill said.
Brown made six of 11 field-goal attempts, including five of nine three-point attempts, and also made 12 of 15 free throws. He was not bothered by Pacific's box-and-one defense that had frustrated the Aggies in a 55-51 loss at Stockton on Feb. 28.
Junior forward Desmond Penigar, who played at Upland High and Ventura College, scored 20 points for Utah State. His final two came on free throws with 8.6 seconds left, capping a frustrating 10-second stretch for Pacific (20-10).
In a game that featured 22 lead changes, Pacific tied the score for the final time, 65-65, when senior forward Mike Preston scored from in close with 38 seconds remaining.
The Tigers fouled Utah State's Toraino Johnson with 18.2 seconds left, and he made his first free throw but missed his second. However, Aggie center Jeremy Vague prevented Pacific from regaining possession by tipping the ball back to Johnson.
Pacific fouled again, and after Brown made one of two free throws with 11.5 seconds left, Pacific's Jono Metzger-Jones fell to the floor after grabbing the rebound and was called for traveling. Penigar then made two free throws to seal it.
Tonight, Utah State will try to be the first team to win three consecutive Big West tournament titles since Nevada Las Vegas won three from 1989-91.