Three minutes into the second half, the crowd sat in silence.
The Aggies, who had led by double figures at halftime, trailed for the first time in the game to NAIA College of Idaho. It was certainly a weird spot to be in for the Utah State men’s basketball team.
It didn’t last long.
The Aggies quickly responded. USU outscored the Yotes 30-5 over an eight-minute span and firmly took control down the stretch. The Aggies went on to win, 90-64, Tuesday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in front of 1,324 fans.
“Defensively, we knew that was a thing we had to get better at, we had to be a more versatile defensive team, so I think later on in that second half we really stepped it up,” said USU assistant coach Eric Peterson, who is filling in for head coach Craig Smith who has COVID. “We took some pride in our defensive schemes and whatnot, and we executed what our coaches had been planning for us to do.”
Turning up the heat on defense and pushing the ball on offense got the Aggies (2-3) going. They reeled off 12 unanswered points to take the lead back as the Yotes (1-2) had four turnovers during that stretch. Neemias Queta had two dunks to get the crowd into the game.
“When you are playing different lineups, there are just some things you need to clean up as coaches,” Peterson said. “We said it doesn’t matter what happens on offense, we need to get stops on defense. One stop at a time. We just needed to get tougher. We challenged them (during a timeout) and they responded in a major, major way.”
USU finished the 30-5 stretch with 13 unanswered points. Steven Ashworth made all three free throws after getting fouled on a 3-point attempt to spark the run. Ashworth and Justin Bean both had steals for layups, and Rollie Worster hit a pull-up jumper to give the Aggies a 74-50 lead with 8:21 to play.
“Defensively, we knew that was a thing we had to get better at, we had to be a more versatile defensive team, so I think later on in that second half we really stepped it up,” said Ashworth, who finished with 15 points and game-best seven assists off the bench. “We took some pride in our defensive schemes and whatnot, and we executed what our coaches had been planning for us to do.”
After the Yotes scored seven straight, the Aggies responded with seven in a row of their own as Alphonso Anderson had five of those points. Sean Bairstow drilled a 3-pointer off a pass from Anderson to give the hosts a 86-61 lead.
A few minutes later USU enjoyed its largest lead, 90-63, when Trevin Dorius made a free throw in the final minute.
Bean led the Aggies with 21 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes of action. Joining Bean and Ashworth in double-digit scoring was Bairstow (11) and Worster (11). Queta grabbed a game-best eight rebounds.
The Yotes were led by Ricardo Time with 16 points. Jalen Galloway added 13 points, and Charles Elzie III came off the bench to add 12.
“We know why Utah State is back-to-back (Mountain West) conference champions,” Yotes head coach Colby Blaine said. “Those guys are tough, they play with a great culture. We appreciate their hospitality. I’m proud of our guys. We battled for 30, 35 minutes there. We were even on the boards going into the last 10 minutes of the game, which I was proud of. Their length just wore us out.”
The Aggies scored the first four points to start the game, but had a hard time shaking the Yotes in the early going. Five 3-pointers by the College of Idaho helped keep the visitors close.
USU did get a little breathing room with a 7-0 run to take a 23-14 lead with 9:15 left in the opening half. Ashworth took a pass from Queta and drilled a shot from beyond the arc to highlight the surge.
The Yotes got their first back-to-back field goals to get back within four.
Bean sank a pair of free throws to spark a 10-0 run by the Aggies before halftime. Anderson capped the run with a bucket in the paint to give the hosts a 37-23 lead with 3:05 before the break.
The Yotes went three-and-a-half minutes without scoring, but then hit a pair of treys. USU took a 44-33 lead into the break.
The Aggies had just three turnovers over the first 20 minutes and made 10 of 11 free throws.
Then the Yotes came out and started the second half with 12 straight points. A 3-pointer by Galloway gave the visitors their lone lead of the game, 45-44, with 17:06 to play.
“I definitely think this was the battle that we were expecting,” Ashworth said. “They might not be a Division I team, but they were a team that was ready. They were well-coached, they ran their sets.”
The Aggies responded after being down in a big way.
All 11 Aggies that dressed saw at least two minutes of action with 10 players scoring.
“I think ultimately it was a great team win, a great opportunity for the guys to come together,” Peterson said. “I enjoyed seeing guys like Liam McChesney, Szymon (Zapala), Matt Wickizer get out there and make some plays. It was definitely fun for us to be able to do that tonight, so hopefully we’ll be able to keep it rolling into Weber State on Saturday.”
The Aggies starting lineup was different from the first four games: Sean Bairstow, Rollie Worster, Brock Miller, Justin Bean and Neemias Queta. It was the first career start for Bairstow. … Former Preston High School star Derek Wadsworth is a starting guard for the College of Idaho. He missed all six of his field goal attempts Tuesday, but did have four rebounds and three assists in 23 minutes of action. … The Aggies won the rebound battle, 40-24, for the fifth straight game. … USU shot a season-high 51.7 percent from the field. … The Aggies had a season-high 18 assists and a season-best 12 steals. … USU outscored the College of Idaho 40-6 in the paint and have outscored all but one opponent in the paint this season. … Bairstow and Worster had career highs in steals with three each. … Bean was a perfect 9 of 9 at the free throw line, as his nine makes at the charity stripe tied his career high. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Yotess, 2-0, as these two usually play exhibition games.
Four USU players were not at the game Tuesday.
The Aggies were without guard Marco Anthony, center Kuba Karwowski, guard Max Shulga and guard Zahar Vedischev. Anthony had started the first four games and was averaging 13.8 points and 4.8 rebounds a game.
“I don’t know how much I can say,” Peterson said. “Without giving specifics, we’re going through medical protocols to ensure the safety of our guys. That’s in accordance with Utah State, the Mountain West and the NCAA.”
Several candidates, but freshman Steven Ashworth gets the nod. The guard came off the bench and finished with 15 points on 4 of 7 shooting from the field and 6 of 9 from the foul line. He also had a game-best seven assists with just two turnovers. Ashworth grabbed three rebounds and came up with two steals in 32 minutes of action.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
It didn’t take long for the first slam of the night. In fact, it came just over a minute into the contest when Neemias Queta found Justin Bean alone, who threw it down two-handed style. Later in the first half, Trevin Dorius was rewarded for running the floor when Steven Ashworth hit him in stride for an easy dunk.
Queta kept up his assault on the rim in the second half with a steal and drive in for a dunk, then taking a pass from Sean Bairstow and throwing another down.
Season dunk count: Quetta 5, Justin Bean 3, Dorius 1.
The Aggies head south for a date with in-state rival Weber State on Saturday. The Wildcats (2-0) hosted Westminster on Tuesday, winning 85-73. The game will tip at 2 p.m. and can be seen on KJZZ.