It was certainly not easy, but once again the Aggies finished strong to bring home some hardware from Jamaica.
No. 15 Utah State scored the final 11 points of the game Sunday evening against North Texas to win a dog fight with the Mean Green. The Aggies held North Texas scoreless for just over four minutes to pick up the win, 68-59, in its final game in the Jersey Mike’s Jamaica Classic at Montego Bay, Jamaica.
“It was a heck of a basketball game,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “North Texas played an excellent game, and we knew they would. They are a very, very good defensive team. ... Our guys found a way to win. This isn’t gymnastics where you get style points for winning. The bottom line is to get the W.”
With the victory, the Aggies (7-0) captured the Montego Bay Division championship trophy. LSU beat Rhode Island, 96-83, earlier in the day.
Utah State forward Justin Bean was named the MVP, while forward Alphonso Anderson was named to the all-tournament team.
“He (Bean) is a real work horse,” said Anderson, who had a game-high 19 points and also grabbed five rebounds Sunday. “Bean brings so much energy to the court. ... Jamaica has been crazy. To be able to hold the trophy was great.”
Bean recorded his second double-double in Jamaica and fourth of the season with 14 points and game-best 13 boards. On Friday he had 14 points and 12 rebounds.
Despite being double-digit favorites, nothing came easy for USU. There were 17 lead changes and the game was tied 12 times. In fact, the Aggies trailed for nearly 21 minutes. North Texas (2-5) certainly came to play Sunday.
“North Texas is an excellent defensive team,” Smith said. “They really make the game ugly. They are on point with their coverages. They make the game very difficult. It’s not easy to get clean scores.”
Utah State also had to deal with some foul trouble and injuries. Starting point guard Abel Porter dealt with an ankle issue and then fouled out with 3:03 to play. All-American guard Sam Merrill had to be helped from the court with 7:41 left in the game with an ankle injury, but did return four-and-a-half minutes later just after Porter fouled out. Merrill did not make a field goal out of six attempts and finished with a season-low five points. Merrill did make a 3-pointer, but had it taken away due to foul on a screen set to get him open.
The Aggies survived a miserable shooting night for them, hitting on 40 percent of their shots. It was much worse from 3-point range despite some good looks. USU was 3 of 14 from long range.
“We had some good looks in the first half, they just weren’t falling,” Smith said. “A lot of that is to their (Mean Green) credit. They make the game messy. They were the aggressor the first 10 minutes of so.”
Trailing 59-57 with 4:11 to play, the Aggies began their final push. Bean scored off a pass from Porter to knot the score for the 12th time in the game.
Porter fouled out on a charge and had a made basket taken away. But that didn’t stop USU as Anderson heated up. The junior scored back-to-back buckets in the paint. Bean blocked a shot and came up with a steal on the defensive end.
“We had a lot of open looks that just didn’t fall,” Anderson said. “We found ways to score when we needed it.”
When North Texas had to start fouling, Diogo Brito made a pair, as did Anderson. Bean finished off the scoring with a free throw with 16 seconds to play.
“It was a big game, and they (Mean Green) came out and played really hard as expected,” Anderson said. “We’ve got a big target on our backs, and everybody is going to give us their best game.”
Brito joined Anderson and Bean in double-figure scoring with 15 points.
Umoja Gibson led the Mean Green with 19 points, while Deng Geu added 18 points and grabbed a team-best seven rebounds.
Both teams scored in the first 30 seconds of the game. Buckets were much more hard to come by for the next 15 minutes.
Neither squad could get much going. North Texas went more than four minutes without scoring, while USU had a dryspell of nearly four minutes. Each side also had long stretches with no field goals as the Mean Green went almost four minutes and the Aggies went 7:41 between made baskets.
There were 10 lead changes and six ties over the first 20 minutes. North Texas enjoyed a 17-13 lead, while USU’s biggest advantage was 29-27 after scoring five straight points on a pair of Bean free throws and a trey by Brito.
The Mean Green drilled a trio of 3-pointers during a two minute span and ended up taking a 30-29 lead into the break.
“We started off a little slow, just not being able to make shots we usually make,” Anderson said. “We worked hard playing defense and fought out a tough one.”
North Texas scored the first four points of the second half and stayed in front until Merrill hit a free throw with 14:36 to play. Then it was back and forth until the final four minutes of the contest.
“We ended the game with seven straight stops and 13 out of 16 stops,” Smith said. “When you can do that, it takes pressure off your offense. Finding a way to win this championship means a lot.”
The Aggies are off to their best start since the 1961-62 team began the season 8-0. ... USU improved to 63-18 all-time as an AP ranked team. … The Aggie bench outscored its counterparts, 34-9, Sunday and have done so in every game this season. … USU won the battle on the boards, 36-33, and have outrebounded every opponent this season. ... Merrill had his streak of double-digit scoring end at 29 straight games. ... Brito had three steals Sunday, which was the fifth consecutive game with multiple steals and he has had at least one steal in every game this season. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Mean Green, 10-1.
While Mr. MVP Justin Bean had another solid outing, the nod goes to Alphonso Anderson. During the crucial 11-0 run, the junior had six points and a rebound. The forward finished with a game-best 19 points on 7 of 11 shooting from the field and 5 of 6 from the foul line. Anderson also had five rebounds and two steals in 31 minutes off the bench.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
There were no dunks by USU over the first 20 minutes or the second 20.
Season count: Alphonso Anderson 5, Kuba Karwowski 4, Trevin Dorius 4, Diogo Brito 4, Justin Bean 2, Sean Bairstow 1, Brock Miller 1.
The Aggies return home Monday, but head back on the road on Thanksgiving Day. USU travels to California to face Saint Mary’s (6-1) on Friday. The Gaels thumped Sonoma State late Sunday night at home, 107-56.