Having had some big second halves this basketball season, the Aggies seemed to be in a good position despite so many turnovers Friday afternoon.
In their first round game of the NCAA Tournament against No. 21 Texas Tech, the underdogs had the lead. However, more turnovers followed in the second half and proved to be the undoing of Utah State at Assembly Hall on the campus of Indiana University.
The Red Raiders rode a 13-0 run in the second half to take the lead for good and bounced the Aggies from the Big Dance with a 65-53 win. Texas Tech was knocked out of the tournament Sunday with a nailbiting second-round loss against Arkansas, 68-66.
Utah State (20-8) finished with a season-high 22 turnovers against the Red Raiders. Those mistakes were turned into 28 points.
The Aggies have had issues at times with turnovers this season, but have been able to overcome them most of the time. But this stage is a lot bigger.
“Obviously, that was our Achilles heel; we had too many turnovers,” Smith said. “They (Red Raiders) force 16 turnovers a game on average, so that’s an incredible number for any team to do that. We’ve got some rookies back there. We have two true freshmen in Rollie Worster and Steven Ashworth, and that’s been a bit of an issue for us this year with some inexperience in our backcourt and Marco Anthony.
While Anthony is not a freshman, he had not played in more than a year. Still, the Aggies got caught making some silly passes and let the physical defense of Texas Tech get to them at times. Turnovers was the glaring statistic as it was obviously what decided the game, but the USU coach was happy with other aspects of his team’s performance.
“I thought we did a great job in every other facet,” Smith said. “I thought we really defended hard and well. I thought we really made them earn everything, with the exception of when we had a six-point lead and then they score on 11 of the next 12 possessions. That hurts you.
Yes, it does.
USU overcame two long scoring droughts in the first half with a pair of 10-0 runs. The Aggies took a 26-23 lead into the break despite 13 turnovers.
Then, like Smith pointed out, USU built a six-point lead with 16:47 to play. Brock Miller hit his second 3-pointer of the game for a 31-25 Aggie advantage.
The game-deciding run by the Red Raiders began shortly after the Miller trey. Texas Tech scored 13 unanswered points on six straight field goals without a miss. USU had two turnovers and four missed shots during a three-minute stretch.
Justin Bean and Neemias Queta each scored off of nice passes from Anthony to stop the bleeding for a moment. But, like Smith pointed out, Texas Tech kept scoring as it came up with points on 11 of 12 trips down the court.
At the midway point of the second half, Texas Tech held a 49-35 lead. The Red Raiders had outscored the Aggies 24-4 over 6:30.
USU did string together six straight points to get the deficit to single digits, 49-41, but would get no closer.
“We rebounded well,” Smith said. “We got to the foul line more than them. We were only 5 for 10 from the foul line, but they’re a team that gets fouled and shoots 23 free throws a game and makes 16, and we hold them to eight free throw attempts and most of them were at the end when we were fouling on purpose. So we played hard without fouling, which made life difficult on them.”
The Aggies had the 2020-21 campaign come to a close with a two-game losing streak. They fell in the Mountain West Conference Tournament championship game to San Diego State before getting an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” Smith said. “I’ve been a part of really, really good teams at every stop, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a team grow on the floor, off the floor, from young men to men, from underclassmen to true leaders in a program (as much as this team). And great teams are run by the players, and we certainly have that. It’s disappointing we lost, no question.
Especially since the Aggies did get some good looks. Some shots rimmed out, a few blown layups and some wide-open 3-point shots that were off the mark all added up to doom USU.
“I felt like we had more clean looks from the three than we have all year,” Smith said. “It kind of reminded me of our first UNLV game where we had clean look after clean look after clean look. They just wouldn’t fall in the first half. We were 1 of 8 from three in the first half and I mean wide-open looks.
“... We’ve got to finish possessions. We’ve got to be able to finish some plays, whether that’s an open three or shots at the rim.”
A 6:30 stretch in the first half featured missed 3-point shots and seven turnovers.
“You know, you make a couple of those, it certainly gives the game a different look,” Smith said. “Basketball sometimes comes down to a shot-making game. When you can make those, the game changes and becomes a lot simpler real fast.”
For the game, USU shot 44 percent from the field, but made just 4 of 19 from long range (21.1 percent). Texas Tech shot 41.9 percent from the field and made 7 of 18 from 3-point range (38.9 percent).
“The bottom line is when you play these guys, you’ve got to make some threes,” Smith said. “It’s just like playing us. We’re different than them, but generally speaking if you’re going to beat the Aggies, you’re going to have to make some threes because as a whole we don’t foul, we own the paint, we’re really good at defending the two and we make teams beat us to beat us. Unfortunately, when we had those great opportunities at times, we just didn’t make them pay, specifically from (3-point range).”