For more than 26 minutes, it was the tight game the Aggie head coach had warned his team and fans about.
No. 15 Utah State then took charge.
The Aggie men’s basketball team used four surges in the second half to blow the game open Monday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. USU scored six, nine, six and then 10 unanswered points on its way to a 82-50 win against UTSA in front of 8,667 fans.
“It’s a great start, doing what we needed to do going 5-0 in these first five games,” Aggie head coach Craig Smith said.
With the win, USU did improve to 5-0 on the season. UTSA fell to 0-5.
There was plenty of praise from the coach as all 10 Aggies that played helped get the victory.
“I just want to bring energy,” said Diogo Brito, who came off the bench to score a season-high 17 points and grab seven rebounds. “My shot wasn’t great, so I tried to do other things. I tried to make plays instead of jacking up threes.”
But he also was able to score too.
Sam Merrill led USU with 21 points as he had the hot hand early. Brock Miller joined Merrill and Brito in double-digit scoring with 10 points.
“The biggest stat is the offensive rebounds,” Merrill said. “We came out with the right mindset.”
Rebounding was certainly on the Aggies’ minds to start the second half. At halftime UTSA had outrebounded USU by four and had nine offensive rebounds. At the end of the game, the Aggies won the battle on the glass, 55-36. The Roadrunners had just three offensive boards in the second half.
For the fourth time this season Justin Bean had double digits in rebounds with 11. Alphonso Anderson came off the bench to also grab 11 boards, a career high. Starting center Kuba Karwowski made it a trio of Aggies with double figures in rebounding with a career-high 10.
“In the second half we really tightened it up on that end,” Smith said. “There were 17 offensive rebounds by us, eight by one legendary figure Justin Bean. I thought that was what really changed the game. That’s what really separated us from that 10 to 12-point range and just exploded on them.”
Playing in front of his father and grandparents, Karwowski also drew praise. On top of his career-high 10 rebounds, he also had career highs in points (8), assists (2) and match his best mark in blocks with four.
“Kuba made a difference,” Smith said.
The Roadrunners were led by Jhivvan Jackson with 15 points, but that is more than 10 points below his scoring average.
“We did a great job on those two guys that can score,” Brito said. “We knew we couldn’t let them get going. … Overall, it was a great defensive effort.”
The other great scorer for UTSA is Keaton Wallace, who had 10 points on 4 of 16 shooting. Jackson was 7 of 25. Eric Czumbel added 12 points for the Roadrunners.
“There was really only one stretch where I felt good about what we were doing,” UTSA head coach Steve Henson said. “It was in the first half. ... Turnovers led to a big run on their part. We used timeouts to stop those runs, but they just kept coming. .... In the second half, they destroyed us on the glass. (Justin) Bean, we’ve been talking about him all week. (Sam) Merrill is a terrific player, no question about that. (Abel) Porter does his job really well. You don’t want (Brock) Miller getting 3s.”
Merrill gave the fans a taste of things to come, drilling his first 3-pointer of the game off a pass from Karwowski. Karwowski and Merrill teamed up again during a 8-0 run by the hosts as they built a quick 11-2 lead. UTSA took a timeout three minutes into the game.
The Roadrunners fought back in and did something that has become rare during the early going of this season for the Aggies. The visitors took the lead after scoring 10 unanswered points. USU went nearly five minutes without scoring. A rebound bucket by Jacob Germany gave the Roadrunners a 16-13 lead with 12:11 left in the opening half.
“We gave up three baskets in transition and three off of offensive boards,” Smith said. “... Sometimes you need to talk to them in the language they understand. … We lost our discipline for a bit.”
After a timeout, it was the Aggies turn to go on a run and hold the Roadrunners scoreless. UTSA went four-and-a-half minutes without scoring, and USU put up 14 straight points.
Karwowski made a reverse layup off a pass from Merrill to get it started. Five different Aggies scored during the surge as Miler had five points. Diogo Brito hit a jumper off a pass from Anderson to give the hosts a 27-16 lead with 7:51 left in the first half.
Merrill finished off the half with five straight points as USU took a 41-29 lead into the break. The Aggie senior drilled his fifth 3-pointer of the first 20 minutes just before halftime.
As Brito heated up and Bean started cleaning the glass with Anderson, USU rolled. The Aggies scored the final 10 points of the game for their largest lead of the contest.
USU improved to 61-18 all-time as an AP ranked team. … USU improved to 31-2 under Smith when leading at halftime. … The Aggie bench has now outscored its first five opponents 160-85. … USU held UTSA to 28.6 percent shooting from the field, marking the fifth time this season the Aggies have held an opponent under 40 percent. … Merrill scored in double figures for the 82nd time in his career. It is also the 28th straight game the senior guard has scored in double figures, dating back to last season. Merrill moved past Jalen Moore (1,634) and into ninth place on the career scoring list as he now has 1,655 points. With the five 3-pointers Monday, Merrill also moved past Reid Newey (237) and into third on the career 3-pointers list with 242. Merrill also played in his 104th game at USU, moving into a tie with Dean Hunger for 23rd on that list. … Brock Miller tied his career high with five rebounds. … The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Roadrunners, 3-0.
The Aggies moved up two spots in the AP Top 25 Poll on Monday. They had been No. 17 since the preseason poll, but are now No. 15. It’s the highest USU has been ranked by AP since being No. 9 during the 1970-71 season.
In the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, USU also moved up from No. 19 to No. 16.
Two other Mountain West teams received votes in the AP poll this week in San Diego State and New Mexico.
“We know this team can be special,” Smith said.
Like most games so far this season, there are several good candidates. Brito gets the nod with his second half performance. The senior guard finished with 17 points on 8 of 15 shooting as he had 15 of those points over the second 20 minutes. Brito also grabbed seven rebounds, an assist, blocked a shot and came up with three steals in 25 minutes off the bench.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
In the first half, Karwowski got the dunk action started by taking a pass from Porter and slamming it down early in the game. Miller joined the dunk party with his first of the year after a steal and open drive to the hoop during the big run. Karwowski added an alley-oop jam off a pass from Diogo Brito just before the break.
Brito grabbed a missed 3-point shot and one-handed it down just over six minutes into the second half. Brito added to his highlight reel with a steal and dunk with 8:26 to play. And just before the game ended, Trevin Dorius moved into a tie for first on the season by grabbing his own miss and slamming it down.
Season count: Karawowski 4, Dorius 4, Brito 3, Bean 2, Anderson 2, Bairstow 1, Miller 1.
The Aggies leave the friendly confines of the Spectrum for their next four games, beginning Friday at the Jersey Mike’s Jamaica Classic. USU takes on LSU at Montego Bay, Jamaica, at 5 p.m. The Tigers (2-1) play UMBC on Tuesday before heading to Jamaica. LSU, who was No. 22 last week, dropped out of the Top 25 on Monday after losing by two points to VCU, which is now receiving votes. LSU is No. 28 when counting others receiving votes.