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LOGAN -- Utah State received surprising career nights from two sophomore reserves Wednesday at the Spectrum as the Aggies (9-4) defeated the Weber State Wildcats (7-6) for the second time this season to claim the Basket Travelers Invitational Championship along with the Old Oquirrh Bucket and state supremacy, 85-73.
Aggie center Modou Niang scored 13 points and pulled down seven rebounds and sophomore forward Brady Jardine scored eight points and recorded six rebounds.
Junior forward Tai Wesley led the Aggies with 19 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Wesley received the Invitational MVP Award and junior forward Pooh Williams and senior guard Jared Quayle were named to the All-Tournament Team.
Wesley impressively stepped up his production during the Invitational averaging a little over 16 points and eight rebounds per game.
Quayle had 16 points against Weber State with 14 of those points coming in the first half.
The Aggies continued their hot shooting and finish the night at 50 percent from the field, but only 38.5 percent from 3-point land. The Aggies still averaged more than 50 percent from the floor during the three-day tournament.
Sophomore guard Damian Lillard led the Wildcats with 22 points and dished out five assists, while sophomore forward Kyle Bullinger added 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting from the floor and a perfect 3-of-3 from beyond-the-arc. Both were named to the All-Tournament team.
Weber State senior center Steve Panos hit two free-throws on the Wildcats' first possession to take an early lead, but the Aggies would respond as Wesley hit a layup and free-throw to give the Aggies a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
The Aggies used a 9-0 run to push their lead to 23 with 8:09 left in regulation and then Lillard, who was held without a field goal in the first half, hit four straight 3-pointers to cut the Aggie advantage to 12 with 4:19 left in the game. Coach Morrill called a timeout to stop and bleeding and the Wildcats never cut the lead below double-digits the rest of the way.
"Offensively we made some progress. It's nice to be home obviously. We were real aggressive in this tournament and shot some high percentages and scored some points and all those things are very positive for us," said Coach Morrill.
The Aggies dedicated this game to junior center Nate Bendall who did not play after undergoing a heart procedure earlier called a heart ablation in order to treat an atrial flutter. Bendall had troubles with his heart earlier in the season and stayed overnight in a hospital in Boston with the team trainer after the Aggies lost to Northeastern.
"We talked a lot about going and giving our all for Nate because Nate is a big part of our team. This was a special one for Nate because we didn't have him. I think Modou, Brady, and Matt stepped up real big for us; especially Modou, he filled those shoes…just unbelievable," said Wesley.
"They said that before we went out for the game, ‘this one's for Nate', that's a pretty good deal," said Coach Morrill, who was equally impressed with the performance of Niang and Jardine. "What a great thing to see a couple of guys that don't normally get that many minutes play so well. Modou and Brady just took up the slack for us not having Nate Bendall. We needed to have somebody step up like that," said Morrill. "I told Modou last night that he was going to get to play that he was going to get his chance."
Niang's 13-point performance in 24 minutes of play was punctuated with a turn-a-round fade-away jumper and the foul over Weber State forward Darin Mahoney that brought the crowd to their feet with 3:26 remaining in the game. Prior to the Weber State game Niang had been averaging 2.9 points and 7.1 minutes per game. Niang took a nose dive into the Aggie depth chart after a short-lived turnover-ridden road game against the University of Utah . What was Niang's key in not getting so many turnovers so quickly?
"I tried to slow down myself a little bit tonight. I just tried to catch it first and go from there," said Niang, comparing his forced tempo against the Utes.
"He had struggled in limited minutes. That's not the same guy I have seen in practice," said Morrill of Niang."I'm not completely stupid. If I'd seen what I saw tonight in practice he would have been playing more. But he's gotta build on that. I think that'll really help his confidence."
With only 25 seconds left in regulation Morrill put in junior forward Matt Formisano so that Niang could receive some recognition from the Aggie faithful.
"I told him that it's not very often that I go out of my way to get a guy a standing ‘O' from the crowd. He deserved that. That is usually for your Jaycee Carrolls or your (Gary) Wilkinsons or somebody that has started and played so well. He just did a great job. It says a lot for him that his opportunity was today and he took advantage of it," said Morrill.
Bendall shoes were filled Wednesday against the Wildcats, but he will be need before the Aggies start WAC play.
"All things point to it being fine. Seven to ten days is what they're saying," said Morrill of Bendall's recovery. "I guess there's an outside chance we could have him for Western Oregon, but that's probably an outside chance. So we definitely need him practicing, back, and ready for league certainly."
According to Morrill things are looking up for the Aggies as the season progresses.
"We're getting better; I think we are getting better. We gotta take that aggression that we played with in this tournament on the road next time we go out. We're starting to get roles defined and we're getting better," said Morrill.
The Aggies face the Western Oregon Wolves Tuesday, Dec. 29th at the Spectrum before heading on the road for WAC play starting with New Mexico State on Saturday, Jan. 2nd and Louisiana Tech on Monday Jan. 4th.
"Five of our first seven (games) in league are on the road so that will be a tremendous challenge," said Morrill.