It was another low-scoring affair at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, but this time it came down to the final seconds to decide the outcome.
Utah State completed another Mountain West Conference series sweep, but had to really work for it against short-handed San Diego State Saturday afternoon. The Aggies overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to beat the Aztecs, 64-59, in front of 1,638 fans.
“San Diego State is really good,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “They are just so tough and physical. We had nothing going right the last seven, eight minutes of the first half. Nothing, I mean nothing went right. That’s a credit to them (Aztecs). … I’m just proud of how our team responded after halftime. To be able to do what we did and hold on, I’m just really proud of our guys.”
Smith was a bit emotional after the game.
“We have some guys that have not been down this road,” Smith said. “To see our guys staying together. Our bench was way more active in the second half. Everybody impacts winning. I think we saw that the last 20 minutes of the game. Everybody put their best foot forward and somehow found a way to win. And the fans did make an impact. That helped.”
There were five lead changes and the game was tied six times in the second half. The last tie came at 53-53 when the Aztecs (9-4, 3-3 MW) made a pair of free throws.
Steven Ashworth made a pair of free throws, and Alphonso Anderson grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to put the Aggies (11-3, 8-0) ahead for good. But it was a nail-biting finish as USU big man Neemias Queta fouled out with 2:27 to play, and the Aztecs would not just roll over.
“Neemi is playing at such a high level right now,” Smith said. “I thought he had looked good again tonight.”
The Aggies made 7 of 8 free throws over the final 1:25 minutes of the game. After getting just two free throws in the first game on Thursday, USU went to the foul line 25 times Saturday, making 19.
Ashworth, who finished with a game and career-high 17 points, made two free throws with 2.4 seconds remaining to seal the 10th straight victory in a row for the Aggies.
“My mind really goes back to pregame whenever I’m shooting a free throw,” said Ashworth, who was 8 of 8 from the foul line for the game. “... Two hours before the game we make sure we have our free throws right. It’s really just going up and knocking them down. That was a big thing for us to finish the game like that.”
Before fouling out, Queta recorded his sixth double-double of the season with 10 points and 10 rebounds. He also blocked five shots and had a game-best four assists.
Brock Miller joined Ashworth and Queta in double-figure scoring with 11 points.
The Aztecs were playing without all-league forward Matt Mitchell, who injured his right knee in Thursday’s game. Mitchell was the leading scorer for SDSU coming in.
“It’s a disappointing loss,” SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher said. “With that being said, I like the toughness and grit of this team. Without Matt Mitchell we came out and fought hard one day. We adjusted our attitude offensively.”
Terrell Gomez came off the bench to lead the Aztecs in scoring with 16 points. Lamont Butler added 13 points off the bench, while veteran guard Jordan Schakel netted 11.
“We have to shoot free throws,” Dutcher said. “In a close game, we have to make our free throws. They shot two free throws in the first game and 25 today, that’s a credit to them, finding a way to get to the foul line. I think the difference in the game, every time we play them, rebounding is a critical part of the game. Their second-chance opportunities were really important for them to win the game. We didn’t do a good enough job of keeping them off the glass.”
The Aztes made 7 of 15 from the foul line.
Bench play was big for both teams. The Aztecs got 36 points from their reserves. The Aggies had 28 points, but they were big and 20 in the second half. Eight of the final 11 points came from the USU bench.
“Great game today, great team win,” Ashworth said. “I think that was the definition of a team win, a lot of guys stepping up, a lot of guys making plays. The first half wasn’t the first half we anticipated or hoped for, but we came back in the second half with a pretty good response. The crowd really got behind us, it’s always great to be in the Spectrum.”
The Aggies came out firing to start the game, drilling back-to-back 3-pointers from Miller and Rollie Worster. A three-point play by Marco Anthony and a trey by Ashworth off the bench gave the hosts their largest lead in the opening half, 14-6, seven-and-a-half minutes into the contest.
Then buckets became much harder to come by. After making 5 of 9 to that point, USU would make just 3 of 12 the rest of the half.
The Aztecs scored seven straight points as the Aggies went nearly three minutes without scoring and when they did it was just one free throw. A Queta dunk ended a field goal drought of nearly four minutes. However, that would be the final points of the half by USU.
San Diego State finished off the first half with seven unanswered as the Aggies went scoreless for the final 4:50. USU missed two free throws, missed five shots from the field and had three of its 12 first-half turnovers during that stretch.
The Aztecs took a 32-22 lead into the break.
“We were just so disjointed,” Smith said. “I don’t think our effort was what it takes to beat a team like that.”
The Aggies quickly righted the ship to start the second half. They scored seven quick points and ended up beginning the second 20 minutes with a 15-2 run as Miller had eight points, nailing a 3-pointer off a pass from Queta to give the hosts a 37-34 lead with 15 minutes to play.
It was then a back-and-forth game most of the rest of the way. USU did string together a 9-2 surge as Anderson had five points and Ashworth four. The Aggies built a 53-49 lead with 6:19 left in the game. They got two free throws from Ashworth when Joshua Tomaic was hit with a technical on the bench.
Then after the tie at 53-53, USU finished off another win.
“I credit our guys for really come together and not blaming each other, not pointing a finger at any teammates or coaches or vice versa,” Smith said. “Then we came out on fire in the second half, in the first five minutes we were able to get back that 10-point deficit. We made some big plays down the stretch, shot well from the free throw line and only had four turnovers in the second half of the game. It was a tale of two halves.”
Utah State started the day at No. 46 in the NET rankings, while San Diego State checked in at No. 44. … The 10-game winning streak by the Aggies matches their longest under head coach Craig Smith as they also won 10 in a row during the 2018-19 season. … The Aggies won the rebound battle, 39-32, for the 14th straight game this season and are 63-11 under Smith when that happens. … USU is the first team to sweep its MW series against SDSU since the 2018-19 season when Fresno State accomplished the feat.. … Alphonso Anderson had a season-high seven rebounds. … Marco Anthony had a season-high two steals. … The Aztecs still lead the all-time series with the Aggies, 13-8.
Neemias Queta is deserving once again, but freshman Steven Ashworth gets the nod. The guard came off the bench to score a game and career-high 17 points on 3 of 8 shooting, including 3 of 6 from 3-point land. He made all eight of his free throw attempts, including a pair to seal the game with 2.4 seconds to play. Ashworth had 11 of his points in the second half. He also had two rebounds, an assist and blocked his first shot as an Aggie in 23 minutes of action.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
Neemias Queta added to his lead with a two-hand slam off a nifty pass from Alphonso Anderson at the end of the shot clock with five minutes left in the first half. It was the lone dunk by the Aggies in the first half.
Queta was the recipient of an alley-oop pass from Steven Ashworth seven minutes into the second half and threw it down.
Season dunk count: Queta 22, Justin Bean 5, Marco Anthony 4, Trevin Dorius 4, Szymon Zapala 2, Anderson 1, Sean Bairstow 1.
The Aggies remain at home for another series next week. They host Colorado State (9-2, 6-1) on Tuesday and Thursday evening in the Spectrum. The Rams were at San Jose State Saturday evening. The game Tuesday night will be at 7 p.m.