A strong start to the second half proved to be the difference late Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Aggies responded from a poor offensive outing in the first game against the Rebels in a big way. Utah State made 50 percent of its shots from the field in a Mountain West Conference men’s basketball game against UNLV and cruised to a 83-74 victory.
“That was a very good win for the Aggies,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “It’s good to get back on track after a couple of tough ones. UNLV is a good team. There is a reason they were picked fourth in the preseason.”
The Aggies (13-5, 10-2 MW) snapped a two-game skid with the win and halted the Rebels (6-7, 3-3) five-game winning streak.
USU cut down on its turnovers from the first game — a 59-56 loss — to go along with better shooting. Once again the Aggies were tough on defense.
“I thought we played really good team ball,” said USU guard Rollie Worster, who flirted with a triple-double. “It was good to get back to winning. ... We didn’t have as much energy as we should have in the first game and weren’t locked in. We were locked in, ready to go and focused for this game.”
Worster finished with a career- and team-high 19 points. The freshman grabbed a career-best nine rebounds and dished out a career-high tying nine assists. Was he aware of how close he came to a triple-double?
“All of my teammates are kind of giving me crap,” Worster said. “It is what it is. I don’t stat watch or anything like that. Obviously, it would have been cool, but I’m just happy we came out with the win tonight.”
“I knew Rollie was having a good game, but had no idea he had 19, nine and nine,” Smith said. “Those numbers speak for themselves. He had a great floor game.”
Worster had plenty of help as all five Aggie starters reached double figures in scoring. Brock Miller netted 15 points, followed by Neemias Queta (13), Justin Bean (13) and Marco Anthony (12). Bean also matched Worster with nine rebounds, but no one came close to the assists.
“It was a great team win, a very balanced effort,” Smith said. “... We end up with 83 points on 69 possessions which is 1.2 points a possession, which is really, really good. There were a lot of great efforts on both sides of the ball.”
Not only did Worster lead the team offensively, but shared time with Anthony guarding UNLV’s Bryce Hamilton, who came into the game averaging 19.7 points a game. Hamilton had a miserable night as he finished with just two points on 1 of 12 shooting. He didn’t score until midway through the second half.
“We mixed it up between Rollie and Marco guarding Hamilton,” Smith said. “He and their other guards can really get it going. ... Other guys switched at times as you do in a game.”
While Hamilton never got on track offensively, David Jenkins Jr. certainly had a big game and kept UNLV in it. The guard more than doubled his average as he had a game-best 33 points, including five 3-pointers.
“They (Rebels) have four guards that can really get it going, and we saw that tonight from David Jenkins,” Smith said. “He was throwing them in from all over the place.”
Both teams struggled in the early going as missed shots and turnovers filled the first two-and-a-half minutes. Anthony got the scoring started with a bucket from the paint.
USU had the first surge, reeling off six unanswered points to build an 11-5 lead with 14:16 left in the opening half. Worster had four points during the run.
The Rebels responded with an 8-0 run to get back in front, 14-11, at the 11:40 mark.
Miller hit a 3-pointer to start a three minute stretch where the Aggies outscored the hosts 10-3. Steven Ashworth drilled a trey to give USU a 23-22 lead with 6:45 left in the first half.
USU built a five-point lead, but UNLV kept it close with 3-pointers as the Rebels had seven in the first 20 minutes. After eight lead changes in the first half, the Aggies took a 37-34 into the break.
Hamilton was scoreless in the first half, going 0 of 5 from the field.
A strong start to the second half gave USU a double-digit lead for most of the final 20 minutes. The Aggies began the second half with a 9-0 run to build a 46-34 lead as four different players scored.
Neither team put a run together as the second half progressed. A dunk by Queta off an alley-oop pass from Bean gave USU its largest lead, 72-58, with 4:52 to play.
The Rebels tried to turn up the pressure and did cause the Aggies to have five turnovers in the final two minutes, but the hosts couldn’t convert on most of those extra possessions. When UNLV did fouls, USU made its free throws.
“Every game matters,” Worster said. “You can’t look past an opponent or too far into the future. We just need to take it game-by-game and week-by-week.”
Utah State began the day at No. 56 in the NET rankings, while UNLV checked in at No. 139. … With the win, USU has won eight of its last 10 games inside the Thomas & Mack Center, spanning the MW Tournament games and road contests at UNLV. … The Aggies won the rebound battle, 41-29, for the 18th straight game this season and are 65-13 under Smith when that happens. ... USU had 21 assists for the game, marking the fifth time it has had at least 20 dimes in a contest this season. ... The Aggies matched their season high 3-point percentage at 52.6 per cent (10 of 19). … The Rebels still lead the all-time series with the Aggies, 34-10.
Who else? The true freshman flirted with a triple-double. Rollie Worster finished with a career-high 19 points on 7 of 13 shooting and was 4 of 4 from the foul line. The guard had a career-high nine rebounds and matched his career best in assists with nine. Worster also equaled his career high in steals with three and had just one turnover in 38 minutes of action.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
The lone dunk of the first half was a dandy. Neemias Queta took an alley-oop pass from Steven Ashworth and threw it down with five minutes left before the break.
Justin Bean got into the act in the second half — passing an alley-oop that is. He found Queta for a dunk late in the game. Brock Miller put the final nail in the coffin with a dunk in the final seconds off a long pass from Rollie Worster.
Season dunk count: Queta 26, Bean 6, Trevin Dorius 5, Marco Anthony 4, Szymon Zapala 2, Alphonso Anderson 1, Sean Bairstow 1, Miller 1.
The Aggies return home and have more than a week before they play again. When USU returns to action, it is back on the road. The Aggies will play a two-game series at Fresno State (5-6, 3-6), beginning next Thursday. Tipoff for the first game is set for 7 p.m.