It’s never over until the final horn sounds.
The Aggies overcame a 10-point halftime deficit late Saturday night at the Save Mart Center in Fresno, California. Utah State used a 8-0 run in the final minutes to take the lead for good and made enough free throws to secure the victory and the No. 2 seed at the upcoming Mountain West Conference Tournament. The Aggies beat Fresno State, 57-51, to end the regular season.
“You know how the saying goes, I think it was pretty applicable tonight, it’s not how you start it’s how you finish,” USU forward Justin Bean said. “Very cliché, but that is literally what’s going through all our minds right now. It was hard fought, just a gut check.”
Trailing 48-45 with four minutes to play, the Aggies (18-7, 15-4 MW) were in need of some buckets. They got them and also some huge offensive rebounds.
After Neemias Queta scored in the paint, USU got the ball back with a Bulldog turnover. The Aggies grabbed three offensive rebounds before Alphonso Anderson drilled a 3-pointer off a pass from Marco Anthony as the shot clock was about to expire with 1:34 left in the game. Another Fresno State (11-11, 9-11) turnover was turned into a trey by Rollie Worster off a nice pass from Anderson to cap a 8-0 run with 38 seconds to play and gave USU a 53-48.
“I give our guys credit for making plays when we needed to,” Aggie head coach Craig Smith said. “Fortunately, we found a way to win.”
Orlando Robinson hit a 3-pointer to give the Bulldogs a little life with 30 ticks left on the clock.
A flagrant foul gave USU two free throws and the ball. The Aggies made 2 of 4 foul shots. After a missed 3-pointer by the Bulldogs, Queta sealed the win with two free throws.
“Big W for the Aggies,” Smith said. “It’s always hard to win, winning is very difficult and it’s obviously a lot tougher on the road. I thought Fresno played a very good basketball game. They’ve been playing great, they’re coming off a win at Boise, beat UNLV at UNLV.”
The Aggies won their first meeting against the Bulldogs, 69-53, back on Feb. 4. Fresno State has made significant strides since that game.
“They’ve been playing a lot better and they made quite a few changes from a month ago, obviously for the better,” Smith said of the Bulldogs. “We were able to find a way to win when not a lot went right for us tonight.”
The double-double men were back at it again for the Aggies. Bean finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds, while Queta had 13 points and 11 boards. Queta also blocked four shots. Anderson netted 11 points, and Anthony had four assists.
Robinson had a big game for the Bulldogs with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Isaiah Hill finished with a game-high 16 points and five assists.
It took nearly two minutes before the first points were scored Saturday night. That was a sign of things to come the rest of the opening half.
Robinson hit a 3-pointer to start the scoring, but the Aggies responded with four points to take their only lead of the first half at the 16:47 mark.
Hill scored all seven points during a 7-0 run by the Bulldogs as the hosts surged to a 10-4 lead. The Aggies went more than four minutes without scoring. Their first drought of several in the game.
A pair of 3-pointers by Fresno State sparked a 9-1 run that gave the Bulldogs a 21-9 lead with 4:42 left in the first half. Over a five-minute span USU had just one free throw.
“Obviously a terrible start,” Smith said. “We had eight points in the first 12-and-a-half minutes. I thought we were just not very tough at the rim and just out of rhythm. Give them (Bulldogs) credit for what they did, I needed to put our guys in a better position with a few more sets and just get a little more structure for those guys.”
Steven Ashworth threw a nice inbound pass to Anderson for a layup to end the drought and start a span of seven unanswered points. Ashworth hit a 3-pointer, and Queta made a pair of free throws to pull the Aggies within 21-16.
Fresno State then scored six straight and would take a 27-17 lead into the break. It ended on a weird note as a player came off the Bulldog bench with less than a second and was hit with a technical. However, the Aggies only made one free throw.
The 17 points were the fewest in a half by the Aggies this entire season.
“We were really good defensively all night long in both halves,” Smith said. “We didn’t let our lack of offense dictate our energy on the defensive end.”
And the offense picked up in the second half.
The Aggies scored the first eight points of the second 20 minutes as Anderson and Bean each scored two buckets. After a Bulldog field goal, Worster drilled a 3-pointer off a pass from Anthony, and USU was within a point with 15:38 to play.
“Obviously the start of the second half was big going on that 11-2 run,” Smith said. “They called that timeout, then it was just kind of a slug fest the rest of the way. We made a lot of plays down the stretch, specifically on the offensive glass.”
The Aggies took their first lead of the second half, 40-39, when Ashworth took a pass from Max Shulga and swished a 3-pointer midway through the half. That was the start of seven lead changes. The final coming when Anderson hit the big trey before the shot clock ran out.
USU ends the season having won four in a row. The Aggies have now beaten the Bulldogs in nine of the last 10 meetings and five times in a row in Fresno.
“I thought a lot of guys did a lot of good things in crunch time when it really mattered,” Bean said. “I thought Neemi (Queta) played really well in the second half. We kind of changed our strategy going into the second half to try and get him some better looks on offense, just clearing the paint for him, letting him do his thing and finding better spacing and I thought he took advantage of that. I’m just proud of our guys, obviously Fonz (Anderson) and Rollie (Worster) had huge buckets down the stretch and I couldn’t be more proud of our guys.”
Utah State began the day at No. 47 in the NET rankings, while Fresno State checked in at No. 188. … The Aggies won the rebound battle, 38-32, for the 25th straight game this season - which is every game this year - and are 70-15 under head coach Craig Smith when that happens. … USU’s 15 wins in MW play are the most by any member of the league. … Neemias Queta recorded his seventh straight double-double, 13th this season and 27th of his career, moving into a tie with Brian Jackson for eighth on the school’s career list. The junior also moved past Nate Harris (722) and into 10th place on the career rebounding list as he now has 731. Queta also moved into fourth place in the MW for career blocks with 197. … Justin Bean had his fourth straight double-double, eighth of the season and 25th of his career. The junior also mathed his season high with three steals. … For the second straight game Brock Miller did not start or play as he deals with an injured back. ... The Aggies lead the all-time series with the Bulldogs, 41-25.
The double-double guys are always worthy candidates, but the nod goes to Alphonso Anderson. The senior was huge when the Aggies needed him late in the game. He hit a big 3-pointer as the shot clock was about to expire and assisted on another trey on the next possession. The forward finished with 11 points on 4 of 9 shooting from the field and 2 of 4 from the foul line. He also had four rebounds and an assist in 28 minutes.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
There were no dunks over the first 20 minutes of the game.
The lone dunk of the game came at the 11:24 mark of the second half, Neemias Queta came up with a steal and went coast-to-coast for a slam.
Season dunk count: Queta 41, Trevin Dorius 7, Justin Bean 7, Marco Anthony 5, Alphonso Anderson 3, Szymon Zapala 2, Sean Bairstow 1, Brock Miller 1.
The Aggies will return home and start preparation to defend their back-to-back conference tournament titles. USU will play Thursday evening in the quarterfinals of the tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV. The Aggies will play the winner of UNLV and Air Force, who play on Wednesday.