Utah St Saint Marys Basketball

Utah State forward Justin Bean (34) shoots over Saint Mary's forward Malik Fitts during the first half late Friday night in Moraga, California.

MORAGA, Calif. — All streaks eventually end.

The Aggies suffered their first loss of the men’s basketball season as Saint Mary’s heated up in the final minutes of the game. No. 15 Utah State held a one-point lead with three minutes to play, but it disappeared fast.

The Gaels scored 11 unanswered points down the stretch, and the Aggies went nearly five minutes without a field goal. Saint Mary’s handed USU its first loss of the season, 81-73, in front of a boisterous crowd of 3,500 late Friday night at McKeon Pavilion.

“It was a really good basketball game, and congrats to Saint Mary’s because they played a great game,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “It was back and forth. We get up by four late, then they made a big push to put us away. Give them credit. They made the plays.”

Perhaps the Winter White Out got to the Aggies (7-1). Entering a game for the first time this season as the underdog, USU couldn’t overcome injuries, illness or a hot Saint Mary’s (7-1) team.

The Gaels turned a deficit into their largest lead of the game, 77-67, with 41 seconds to play. The Aggies had to start fouling in the final minute.

The Gaels came into the contest having won five straight and made it six Friday. They made 51.8 percent of their shots. Saint Mary’s came into the game second in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage (45.9) and certainly didn’t hurt that statistic by going 8 of 19.

“It was a battle from the opening tip,” said USU’s Justin Bean, who had a career- and team-high 24 points and grabbed a team-best nine rebounds. “They are a very good team and we knew that coming into this game. … Unfortunately, we did not take care of business. Down the stretch they (Gaels) made a lot of good plays and executed really well. That’s on us, we have to be better defensively.”

Bean struggled with foul trouble in the first half and did not get one single rebound. He came out aggressive in the second half.

“I got in foul trouble early and that kept me from playing my usual game,” Bean said. “I knew the second half, regardless, I knew I had to be more aggressive. I wanted to make an impact on the offensive end.”

The same can be said about Gaels guard Jordan Ford. He came into the game having scored at least 20 points in six games. Make that seven, despite being held to just five in the first half. Ford finished with a game-best 27 points.

“Good shooters don’t have a conscience,” Bean said. “He didn’t let that first half get him down. He did a great job in the second half. He is a really good player. Props to him.”

Joining Ford in double-figure scoring for the Gaels were Malik Fitts (21) and Matthias Tass (15). Fitts also grabbed a game-best 11 rebounds.

“Jordan Ford made some clutch shots,” Smith said. “... They made plays. We have done that our last two game, but tonight they did. Basketball is a humbling game, but you give them credit.”

Sam Merrill was the only other Aggie to reach double digits in points with 23.

Last year the Aggies beat the Gaels in Las Vegas, 80-63. Neemias Queta had a monster game against Saint Mary’s last year. The big man was at the game, but dressed in street clothes.

“We are battling some issues right now, but that is not an excuse; it is part of the deal,” Smith said. “We have some guys in different situations, but this game will make us better in the long haul.”

The Aggies got off to a good start, scoring the first five points of the contest. Merrill drove in and kissed a shot off the glass. Brock Miller followed with a 3-point shot off a pass from Abel Porter.

The Gaels responded with a 6-0 spurt as their big man, Tass, had two buckets. It was the start of a stretch where the lead changed hands eight times over the first nine-and-a-half minutes.

USU held Saint Mary’s scoreless for more than three-and-half minutes, but could only muster six points during that timespan. Sean Bairstow capped the run with a bucket to give the visitors a 20-16 lead with 9:31 left in the opening half.

A three-point play by Bean gave the Aggies their largest lead of the first half, 25-19, with seven minutes left before the break. The Gaels responded with a 9-0 run to build their largest lead of the first 20 minutes, 32-28.

Merrill hit a pair of highlight-reel 3-pointers before halftime. The first came after he stumbled, but he somehow got the shot off before the shot clock expired. The second came a minute later from NBA range. USU took a 36-34 lead into the break after 12 lead changes and three ties.

The second half began with more of the same as the lead changed hands over and over.

Before the big run to end the game by the Gaels, there were 23 lead changes, and the game was tied 13 times.

“As disappointing as this is, I think this game is great for their fan base and it will be great for our fans next year,” Smith said. “I think games like this are great for college basketball.”

TIP-INS

USU is now 63-19 all-time as an AP ranked team. … USU dropped to 31-3 under Smith when leading at halftime. … The Aggie bench has outscored every opponent this season and for the season, 243-105. … USU was outrebounded for the first time this season, 33-31. … Merrill moved into third on the career 3-point attempts list as he passed Jay Goodman (580) and now has 592. Merrill also played in his 107th game at USU, moving into a tie with Preston Medlin for 22nd on that list. … Diogo Brito came up with three steals in the game, his sixth consecutive game with multiple steals. … Abel Porter had seven assists for USU. … For the first time this season, Bean did not wear his protective mask to protect his broken nose. … The Aggies still lead the all-time series with the Gaels, 6-5.

NO KUBA KARWOWSKI

The Aggies were without the tallest player to ever put on a uniform Friday night.

Karwowski had his appendix removed earlier in the week and is out for three to six weeks, according to head coach Craig Smith. He did not make the trip to California. The 7-foot-2 Karwowski had started the first seven games, averaging 3.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.7 blocks a game.

In the past two games, the native of Warsaw, Poland, had seen limited playing time. However, his length had been helpful on defense. The junior was averaging 15.3 minutes a game this season.

Replacing Karwowski in the starting lineup was Alphonso Anderson.

NIGEL JOHN SIGNS

Just before Thanksgiving, the Aggies signed another player for the 2020-21 season.

Nigel John, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound post player signed and will have four years of eligibility. He is a native of Allen, Texas.

“We are thrilled that Nigel is joining the Aggie family,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “He and his family are wonderful people. Nigel fits the culture of our program in a big-time way. He has a tremendous work ethic and has a motor that runs at a high, high level. Nigel has a great blend of athleticism and skill level that will fit our style of play very well.”

John averaged a double-double last season with 16.8 points and 10.8 rebounds a game. He also averaged 3.0 blocks a game. He shot 80 percent from the floor.

GAME BALL

His second half play earned him this game ball. Bean finished with a career and team-best 24 points on 8 of 13 shooting from the field and a perfect 7 of 7 from the foul line. The sophomore also hit his first 3-pointer at USU. The forward just missed a double-double as he finished with nine rebounds.

AGGIE DUNK COUNT

Late in the first half, Trevin Dorius took a pass from Brito and slammed it home for the lone dunk of the opening half. It was the only dunk by an Aggie in the game.

Season count: Dorius 5, Anderson 5, Karawowski 4, Brito 4, Bean 2, Bairstow 2, Miller 1.

UP NEXT

The Aggies return home on Saturday, but are back on the road early next week to open Mountain West play. They travel to the Bay Area again to take on San Jose State (3-4) on Wednesday. The Spartans play at UCLA on Sunday before hosting USU. The game on Wednesday will be televised on ESPN2 and begin at 9:15 p.m.

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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