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BIG WEST MEN'S CHAMPIONSHIP

Utah State Holds Off Cal Poly Late

March 16, 2003|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

In a league so balanced that its coaches truly believed any of the eight teams could win the Big West Conference men's tournament, it was no surprise that the championship game between Utah State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo wouldn't be decided easily.

The conference's automatic and only certain NCAA tournament berth remained up for grabs until the end, but Utah State won its third conference tournament title in the last four years with a 57-54 victory at the Anaheim Convention Center late Saturday night.

Utah State entered the title game with a tremendous advantage in experience, and it showed in the final minutes.

The Aggies (24-8) held Cal Poly without a field goal in the final 3:35 and Cardell Butler made four free throws in the last 15 seconds.

"I was just ready to make them, ready to knock them down," Butler said. "I've been in the situation before and I was not nervous at all."

Utah State earned its fourth NCAA bid in the last six years but not without a fight from a team that hadn't won a Big West tournament game in two previous appearances.

Senior guard Jason Allen tied the score at 52-52 with two free throws, but Utah's Spencer Nelson made one with 3:23 left. Neither team would score for another three minutes.

After Butler coolly made two free throws, the Aggies opted to foul and deny Cal Poly a chance to set up a play. Allen made two free throws to cut the deficit back to one.

The Mustangs (16-14) then sent Butler to the line again with 8.1 seconds left. Butler had starred in all three of the Aggies' victories and he capped his amazing tournament with two more free throws. Butler finished with a team-high 17 points. He scored a career-high 19 in Thursday's overtime win over Cal State Fullerton and clinched a semifinal victory over UC Irvine by scoring five of the game's last seven points.

"It is an unbelievable, unexplainable feeling," the junior college transfer said, with tears running down his cheek.

Allen tried a running three-pointer but it bounced off the back of the rim and the Aggies grabbed the ball at the buzzer.

Allen and junior forward Varnie Dennis combined for all but 14 of the Mustangs' points.

Allen scored 21 and Dennis had 19.

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