Utah St Saint Marys Basketball

Utah State guard Sam Merrill drives in for a layup against Saint Mary’s last Friday in Moraga, California.

All along Utah State head men’s basketball coach Craig Smith has said polls are just that — polls.

He has not put much weight into the national ranking the Aggies have had since the 2019-20 season began. It’s obviously up to the opinions of many who don’t really pay real close attention to schools not in the power six conferences.

Utah State began last week at No. 15 in the AP Top 25 Poll. The Aggies lost their lone game of the week at Saint Mary’s last Friday, 81-73. The Gaels (8-1) have been ranked and were just outside of the Top 25 in the others receiving votes category last week.

With the road loss — the first setback of the season — USU dropped 10 spots in the most recent poll. The Aggies (7-1) came in at No. 25, just edging Florida by one point. Saint Mary’s was 29th after being 27th last week.

Smith does have a point about polls. Still, USU has been ranked for five straight weeks, which is the longest stretch for the Aggies since appearing in the AP poll for 11 consecutive weeks during the 1970-71 season.

USU was without big man Kuba Karwowski, who had his appendix taken out earlier last week after returning from Jamaica. Karwowski had started the first seven games in place of all-league center Neemias Queta, who is still rehabbing from a knee injury suffered in the summer.

Smith elected to go small, starting the 6-foot-6 Alphonso Anderson over the third 7-footer on the team. Anderson has been on a tear of late, but like many players on the team was battling being sick. Anderson had three points and two rebounds, well below his averages of 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds going in. Smith never made any excuses, but the Aggies were certainly not at full strength against the Gaels.

“We threw some guys in some different situations they haven’t been in, but this game will make us better in the long haul,” Smith said. “If both teams do it right, I think you are looking at two NCAA Tournament-caliber type of teams. We will learn from this and get better.”

USU had its chances at Saint Mary’s and in fact had a four-point lead with four minutes to play. The Aggies were still in front by a point with three minutes left in the contest. That’s when the Gaels scored 11 straight points to surge ahead and stay there.

“Unfortunately, we did not take of business,” said Aggie forward Justin Bean, who scored a career-high 24 points and grabbed nine rebounds. “They (Gaels) made plays and executed down the stretch.”

Two 3-pointers by USU within a 12-second span gave the Aggies some hope, but Saint Mary’s kept making its free throws when USU was forced to foul. The Gaels made six consecutive free throws in the final 41 seconds.

“Obviously, they (Gaels) made a big push late to put us away,” Smith said. “Give them credit for making some big-time plays. Jordan Ford (game-high 27 points) had 22 second-half points. We did a really good job on him in the first half, but he is an experienced player, a veteran guy and hit some difficult shots at crunch time.”

Bean was joined in double-figure scoring by Sam Merrill, who had 23 points and six rebounds. Abel Porter had seven assists, while Diogo Brito had seven points, six rebounds and three steals.

“They (Gaels) neutralized us on the glass and outrebounded us (33-31) and we only had 11 assists on the night,” Smith said. “... They are a type of team like us that takes pride in when you make mistakes, they make you pay. We lost some poise down the stretch with some turnovers and then over helped.”

The Aggies left town feeling one got away. They led for 20:34 of the contest, while the Gaels were in front for 12:04. The rest of the time the score was tied as there were 23 lead changes over the 40 minutes and 13 times the score was knotted.

“We will get better from this,” Bean said. “We will take it upon ourselves to learn from this and become a better team because of it.”

Now USU turns its attention to Mountain West play this week. The Aggies and the rest of the league will play each other this week, before turning back to non-conference games the rest of December. USU travels to San Jose State (3-5) for a game late Wednesday night, then hosts Fresno State (2-4) on Saturday afternoon in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum.

“We are the type of program that doesn’t accept losing,” Smith said. “We will learn from the Saint Mary’s game and get better. ... We will tighten up some things and fine tune as we head into league play. Everything rachets up another degree in league play. We are excited to defend our title.”

The Spartans lost at UCLA on Sunday, 93-64.

Shawn Harrison is the sports editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at sharrison@hjnews.com or 435-792-7233.

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