In a series that has been defined by last-second finishes the last two seasons, Friday night's semifinal went down to the final minute. This time, the Aggies' Cardell Butler was the hero. His basket with 36.9 seconds left gave Utah State the lead for good in a 62-55 victory at the Anaheim Convention Center.
Butler, normally a reserve, got a start after a 19-point performance in Thursday's overtime victory over Cal State Fullerton. He scored five of the final seven points, including the most important one in the final minute. Butler drove into the lane and put up a shot over Irvine center Adam Parada that fell and gave Utah State (23-8) a 57-55 lead.
Irvine (20-9) drove the ball down the court but guard Mike Hood shot an air ball with 26 seconds left. Needing desperately to foul, the Anteaters failed to do so as Butler found an open Desmond Penigar for a dunk. The junior added three free throws to send Utah State to its fourth consecutive Big West final.
Penigar led the Aggies with a game-high 24 points.
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo 67, UC Santa Barbara 52 -- The Mustangs scored 29 of the final 37 points and stunned the regular season and defending tournament champion Gauchos.
Only two days ago, Cal Poly, which joined the conference in 1996, had not won a game in two previous tournament appearances. The Mustangs (16-13) edged Idaho, 54-50, on Thursday before sidestepping Santa Barbara (18-13).
"Obviously we came down here with a goal and now we're a step closer," Cal Poly Coach Kevin Bromley said. "All along, I think we had some things to prove."
Junior forward Varnie Dennis, who finished second in the league in scoring and led in rebounding and blocked shots, had plenty of incentive. He was passed over for player of the year honors, which went to Santa Barbara's Branduinn Fullove.
"There was a lot of motivation and I played with a lot of emotion," said Dennis, who led the Mustangs with 18 points and a game-high 10 rebounds. "I got a lot of rest last night which I don't normally do before a game. I felt pretty good.
"We want to prove to the masses of people who seem to doubt this team and this program."
Fullove had 20 points in Thursday night's 53-44 victory over Pacific, but he missed all eight of his shots Friday and scored only two points with Mustang forward Shane Schilling draped over him.
Santa Barbara made only 18 of 53 shots but saved its worst for the second half when it made one field goal in the final 13 minutes.