College athletes are always working to improve their game.
The Aggies have plenty of areas to choose from after their season opener Tuesday night in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum against UC Davis. Take your pick. The Utah State men’s basketball team turned the ball over 12 times in the first half, had scoring droughts in each half, missed more than 10 free throws for the game and struggled shooting the ball.
That all added up to a rare home and season-opening loss for the host Aggies. The visiting Aggies prevailed, 72-69, hitting some crucial shots and free throws down the stretch.
“This team’s got the ability to score in bunches, and we’ve just gotta play tougher,” said USU head coach Ryan Odom, who made his debut at the Aggie helm Tuesday night. “We talked about that after the game. Our team is tougher than we played. We owe it to ourselves to get back to it, and get to work on what’s next for us.”
Nerves certainly played a part as three starters were playing their first game in a USU uniform. The home Aggies did get better in taking care of the ball in the second half. Odom said nerves were just natural for the first game.
“This was our first game playing together,” guard Rylan Jones. “Parts of us have played together. ... I am new to the mix. We got clicking in the second half and made runs and were getting to the rim. That one possession we had four wide open threes and three of them were in and out. We got great shots, but they just weren’t going in the hoop, little bit of a lid on the basket.”
USU shot 36.1 percent from the field for the game, including just 8 of 30 from 3-point range (26.7 percent).
“We missed a lot of easy shots around the rim,” Jones said. “... We are up 12 and missed layups. I missed one, Brandon Horvath missed one, RJ (Eytle-Rock) missed two and then tipped one in. They were just hanging on the rim and not going in. They made some tough layups and we missed some easy layups. We just didn’t get a lot of good bounces.”
USU did race out to a 17-5 lead to begin the game. However, UCD did not panic. In fact, the Aggies from California used a 15-0 run to take their first lead of the game, 20-17.
“We got stops to start the game,” Jones said. “Then we stopped getting stops. The name of this game is getting stops and putting the ball in the basket. When you do that, you usually win. We didn’t do that consistent enough. They were scoring and we were not.”
“Yeah, we missed some shots around the rim,” Odom said. “We were like 4 for 12 at one point. One of the things my dad taught me early on is early leads rarely hold. You’ve got to play the game. That middle stretch they (UCD Aggies) got more physical, started deflecting balls. All of the sudden the roles were reversed.
“We were not making good decisions. We were driving on top of people. We had some charges, not reading guys open across the court. We became pretty tentative.”
Over the first 20 minutes, USU had 12 turnovers. It got better in the second half for the hosts, but the damage was done as UCD took a 40-35 lead into halftime and had plenty of confidence.
It also didn’t help that USU went 17 of 28 from the foul line. Eight of those misses came in the second half.
“We have to make free throws,” Jones said. “I can’t imagine our percentage is very good.”
No, it was not. It was 60.7 percent for the game from the free throw line.
Still, USU had a chance down the stretch. The game was tied at 61-61 with two minutes to play. During the last two minutes, UCD was a perfect 3 of 3 from the field and 4 of 4 from the foul line. USU was 3 of 4 from the field and had a turnover.
“Ezra (Manjon) and (Elijah) Pepper are good guards,” Jones said. “... We needed to get one big stop. I tried to get a jump on his (Manjon) right hand and get a charging call. No call, he spun and Pepper got a wide-open three and made it. We just ran out of time. Pepper making that three was a game-changer. I just need to play better defense.”
“We could not get the stop when we needed it,” Odom said. “We did score enough down the stretch to be able to pull out a victory. You’ve got to give UC Davis credit. They did make some baskets right at key times right down the stretch there. That really hurt us, and gave them the chance to go ahead and win it.”
While a home loss is tough to swallow, there were some positives. The coach praised his starters, as well as Trevin Dorius and Steven Ashworth off the bench.
“For him to have five or six practices under his belt and play the way he did, is pretty impressive,” Odom said of Dorius. “His size can be a factor out there.”
Jones hit some big 3-pointers at the end of the game to give USU a chance, and stood his ground for four charges. He would like to have had a fifth.
“That is kind of my thing, been doing it my whole life,” Jones said of taking charges. “I’m happy to get four of them. We could have used one more.”
“The fact that he is willing to give his body up for his team like that and has the smarts to be able to figure out where guys are, there is an art to that,” Odom said. “It’s really incredible he is able to make that happen.”
USU had no time to dwell on the loss. Before the sun had even come up Wednesday morning the team was headed to the airport. USU takes on Richmond in a neutral-site game at Annapolis, Maryland, on Friday.
“We’ve got a short turnaround with Richmond coming up, who is another veteran team,” Odom said. “They’ve got five super seniors in the starting lineup that all decided to come back, so it’s going to be a stiff challenge for us, but it will be a good opportunity for us to get away and work together. We’ve got a long trip. The longest, obviously of the year, and so it will be a good opportunity for us to bond and continue to work on our team. Disappointed, but not discouraged about the result (in the season opener).”