For the first time this season in Mountain West Conference play, the Aggies enjoyed a lead at halftime Tuesday night in Fresno, California.
Trouble is, they could not hold it.
For the fourth time in five outings, the Utah State men’s basketball team dropped a league game that went right down to the final minute. Fresno State made a 3-pointer and 5 of 6 free throws in the final 66 seconds of the game to rally for a 61-54 win in front of an announced crowd of 5,000.
“This team is still close, we just aren’t quite good enough right now,” Aggie head coach Ryan Odom said.
During that final 66 seconds, USU (10-8, 1-4 MW) made just two free throws. The Aggies missed four shots and had a turnover.
“We had some good looks and just didn’t make them,” Odom said. “And we’ve got to pull it in and be tighter (to not turn the ball over). We need to be cleaner with it.”
What’s even more frustrating for the Aggies is they had a 16-point lead with three-and-a-half minutes left in the first half. Even with Justin Bean struggling to find his range, USU was rolling. The Aggies hit 10 of their first 13 field goal attempts and were 14 of 22 when they led by 16.
“They were all inside baskets, we were attacking the paint,” Odom said. “That was certainly a focus of ours. The risk against Fresno State, the more that you drive it in there, they (Bulldogs) run at your ball. They are physical guys and come after. They got us a couple of times. Then they got us in some situations were we made some chancy passes. We need to control that a little bit better.”
The Bulldogs (13-4, 3-1) were able to half the lead with a 8-0 run as USU missed three straight shots and had a turnover. Rylan Jones hit a jumper before the break to give the Aggies a 10-point lead at the break. It was not enough.
The second half became a nightmare for the visitors. After shooting 57.7 percent from the field and turning the ball over six times over the first 20 minutes, the Aggies shot 33.3 percent and had nine turnovers in the second half. USU made 1 of 4 3-point attempts in the first half, then was 1 of 8 in the second.
“Our offense left us a little bit in the second half when their defense picked up,” Odom said. “We got a little tentative with the ball.”
The Bulldogs took their first lead of the game, 41-40, with 9:17 minutes to play. Fresno State used an 11-2 run to take the lead.
“The beginning of the second half was important,” Odom said. “Our turnovers in this particular game really hurt us. We just didn’t read situations correctly. Normally, we are pretty good at that. That was certainly a key to the game.”
There were five lead changes, as USU hung around. Ultimately, the Bulldogs were able to finish off the game.
“I thought early in the game our intensity and communication was not there,” Fresno State head coach Justin Hutson said. “We just weren’t sharp. Over the course, we made a few changes but I thought we were just a little bit more locked in.”
Fresno State has now won three in a row and is 8-0 at home this season. The Bulldogs came into the game leading the MW and ranking third nationally only allowing 56.6 points a game. They obviously improved on that and have now held 16 of 17 opponents to less than 70 points this season.
“We had to just keep fighting,” Hutson said. “We had to talk about our mentality and say hey we can do this. We had to make some consecutive stops and make the extra pass.”
Orlando Robinson led the Bulldogs with 11 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and blocked three shots. Deon Stroud came off the bench to score a game-best 14 points, and Anthony Holland added 13 points.
The Aggies were led by Sean Bairstow with 12 points, six rebounds and five assists. Justin Bean chipped in 10 points and grabbed just two rebounds, well below his double-double average. Trevin Dorius came off the bench to score eight points and haul down a team-best seven boards.
NEXT UP, BOISE STATE
The Aggies have no time to lick their wounds as they must quickly prepare for the hottest team in the Mountain West.
Boise State (13-4, 4-0) comes to Logan having won 10 in a row. The Broncos and Aggies were supposed to play back on Jan. 4, but the game was postponed because Boise State at COVID problems. They are now playing Thursday night, tipping off at 7 o’clock.
“Boise is excellent,” Odom said. “They have a veteran team and are well coached. We prepped for them and then it was canceled, so we are familiar with their roster. They are a well balanced team with a stout defense.”
Boise State won a tight game with Air Force Tuesday night at home, 62-56.
“They (Broncos) are clicking right now,” Odom said. “They had a dogfight with Air Force last night, but we know Air Force is a pesky team.”
The Broncos have three players averaging double figures in the scoring department in Marcus Shaver, Jr. (13.9), Abu Kigab (13.4), and Emmanuel Akot (11.8). Tyson Degenhart, who had 19 points Tuesday night, is close to double digits at 9.1 ppg. Mladen Armus is the top rebounder with 8.7 boards an outing.
“Shaver is a key guy for them,” Odom said. “He can shoot off screens, he can put the ball down and can get threes off. He is an important player. ... The big fella (Armus) is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country with four a game. We are really going to have to do a good job of controlling the glass and guard the paint.”
Akot handles the ball at lot and at 6-foot-8, can be a mis-match.
“They (Broncos) have size, they are bigger at pretty much every position,” Odom said. “... The freshman (Degenhart) has really been coming on. Armus is a load too.”
Bean, Brandon Horvath and Bairstow lead the Aggies in scoring, averaging 19.1, 12.3 and 10.2 ppg., respectively. Bean has dipped down to 9.9 rebounds a game after his outing at Fresno State.
Guard RJ Eytle-Rock will be back for the Broncos, but won’t start.
“He looked pretty good today in the workout,” Odom said. “We will watch and see how his fitness is.”
Facing a good team like Boise State and trying to end a losing streak will not be an easy task for the Aggies.
“We are a different team right now,” Odom said. “Brock (Miller) has not been out there. RJ has been out. Rylan (Jones) has been dinged up. Bean’s ankle. We’ve had some stuff going on. It’s not excuses, just what is going on. They are the circumstances. We are trying to work through them.
“We know we are playing good teams and two of them on the road. We are right there. We will keep knocking on it and will get there. ... We do need to get better.”