Strong starts at the beginning of each half was more than enough for the Aggies Saturday afternoon at Clune Arena.
The Utah State men’s basketball team never trailed against Air Force in the Mountain West Conference game held at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. The Aggies extended their best start since joining the MW with a 72-53 victory.
“It was an interesting game with four or five games within one,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “... It’s always tough to win at Air Force. Any time you win on the road, it’s always a good win.”
A 14-0 lead to start the game coupled with a 15-4 surge early in the second half was more than enough for the Aggies (7-3, 4-0 MW) to run their winning streak to six. USU had won the first meeting on Thursday, 83-48.
“We got off to a great start,” Smith said. “We had some unevenness after that. We went to our bench and didn’t defend real well and played disconnected on the offensive end. … We played more connected at the start of the second half. We started sharing it and throwing it inside.”
Air Force (3-5, 1-3) had no answer for USU center Neemias Queta. The Aggie 7-footer led the team with 15 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and blocked four shots. The six assists tied his career high
“He (Queta) was big in every way, shape and form,” Smith said. “We didn’t go inside nearly enough in the first half. When we throw it in there, great things happen. … He is an anchor for us, a great force. Look at those numbers. … He has a tremendous impact on the game.”
Queta just shrugged off the fact he led the team in every statistical category but steals. He shared that with Justin Bean with two.
Once again USU got a balanced attack in points as four athletes reached double digits and fifth was a point away. Joining Queta in double figures was Brock Miller (13), Rollie Worster (13) and Bean (12). Marco Anthony had nine points, seven rebounds and four assists. Bean also had seven rebounds.
“I thought we had a really good mentality coming into this game,” Queta said. “After the first game we just wanted to come in and be ready for the second game. We needed to be ready from the get go and play hard.”
AJ Walker bounced back from a rough outing on Thursday to score a game-best 19 points on 8 of 13 shooting. Chris Joyce added 11 points.
The Aggies missed their first shot from long range to begin the game after controlling the opening tip, but then heated up fast. Miller drilled a 3-pointer, followed by back-to-back treys from Worster. USU rolled to a 14-0 lead to start the game with Queta dunking a pass from Anthony to cap the start.
“I think we started the game really well and responded every time they (Falcons) threw a punch we threw a punch back,” Queta said.
It took the Falcons nearly seven minutes to find the bottom of the net. Akaya Ameka hit a 3-pointer to get the hosts on the scoreboard.
A second trey from Walker sparked a 7-0 surge by AIr Force midway through the opening half. Joyce made a pair of free throws to pull the Falcons within 18-13 with 9:23 left in the first half. They would get no closer the rest of the way.
A three-point play by Alphonso Anderson ended the Falcon run. Then the Aggies outscored Air Force 8-1 over the final five minutes of the first half. USU took a 33-24 lead into the break.
Eight turnovers by the Aggies over the first 20 minutes helped the Falcons stay somewhat close.
“We had eight turnovers and five assists at halftime,” Smith said. “We told our guys at halftime we were playing selfish basketball. They took that to heart to their credit.”
After trading baskets to begin the second half, Queta had a rebound bucket and then found Bean for a layup. Those four points sparked the 15-4 run.
“After the lead that we had built, we knew they (Falcons) would have to come out strong the first five minutes to get back in the game,” Queta said. “We talked about being the team that played harder for the first five minutes (of the second half). We wanted to finish off the game and make sure they couldn’t come back.”
Queta had two dunks, the second was more of a layin that gave the visitors a 51-26 lead with 13:44 to play. It would be the Aggies largest lead of the game.
“I thought we had a really good run to start the second half,” Smith said.
The Falcons used a pair of 8-0 runs to get within 58-44 with 7:11 to play. A 3-pointer by Akaya made it a 13-point game, but Air Force would get no closer.
Bean scored 11 of his points in the second half, most off of passes from Queta.
“I think both of us are unselfish,” Queta said of his assists to Bean. “We both try to make the correct play. Bean is a really unselfish player, and I am an unselfish player. … We have built a connection since my freshman year. We just play really well together.”
The Aggies starting lineup Saturday was: Marco Anthony, Rollie Worster, Brock Miller, Justin Bean and Neemias Queta. …USU shot a season-high 54.5 percent from the floor. … The Aggies are 6-1 this season and 52-7 when leading at halftime under head coach Craig Smith. … The Aggies won the rebound battle, 38-21, for the 10th straight game this season and are 59-11 under Smith when that happens. … With four blocked shots Saturday, Queta is now tied with Nate Wickizer for second on the career list with 148. … Miller scored in double figures for the fourth straight game this season. … Anthony had a career-high two blocked shots. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Falcons, 21-6.
AGGIE WOMEN GET SWEEP ALSO
Like the men, the USU women completed a sweep of Air Force on Saturday with a 61-55 victory in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. However, it was a much more dramatic finish.
Tied at 55-55 with 33 seconds to play, Aggie guard Faith Brantley hit a 3-pointer from the corner to put USU (4-4, 2-1) in front. The Aggies made three free throws in the final seconds and got defensive stops to complete the sweep of the Falcons (2-5, 0-2).
“Faith hit that three that iced the game, and that was such a huge shot for us,” USU head coach Kayla Ard said. “It wasn’t the shot we were looking for right there, but Air Force took away the shot that we were looking for, and the fact that she had the confidence to knock that down was just so huge. She’s worked so hard on her 3-point game and I love her confidence. I’m also so proud of Bre (Mathews). She fought through some things and played a lot of minutes this game. I know she was exhausted.”
Mathews led all Aggies in scoring and rebounding in what was her second career start. She finished with 15 points and a career-high nine rebounds, six of which were offensive.
Jessica Chatman was the only other USU player to reach double digits in scoring with 11 and also blocked three shots. Brantley had four assists.
The Aggies have matched their conference win total from a year ago just three games into league play.
Who else but the big man. Neemias Queta led the Aggies in every category Saturday with 15 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 blocked shots and 2 steals. The center was 7 of 10 from the field and played 33 minutes. It was the juniors third double-double of the season and 17th in his career.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
There was just one slam in the first half by the Aggies and no surprise who it came from. Neemias Queta took a pass from Marco Anthony and threw it down.
Queta continues to add to his team-leading total as he had two in the second half. He hooked up with Anthony again for a dunk in the early going of the second, then took a pass from Justin Bean and softly flushed it.
Season dunk count: Quetta 15, Justin Bean 3, Marco Anthony 3, Trevin Dorius 2, Szymon Zapala 2, Alphonso Anderson 1.
The Aggies return home for a few days before heading back on the road. This time they are off to the Lone Star State to take on New Mexico (3-3, 0-3) in a two-game series, beginning on Wednesday at 8 p.m. The Lobos are playing their home games at a junior college in Lubbock, Texas, right now as the state of New Mexico is not allowing games because of COVID. New Mexico hosted Nevada late Saturday night.