Even as poorly as the Aggies played Monday night in Las Vegas, they still had a chance in the final seconds.
Ultimately, Utah State could not fully dig out of a 10-point second half deficit. UNLV held on for a wild 59-56 Mountain West Conference victory in front of no fans.
Now the Aggies will try and halt a two-game skid Wednesday night when they face the Rebels for the second of a two-game series at the Thomas & Mack Center. The game will be televised on FSI. Tipoff is at 9 p.m.
For the second straight game the Aggies (12-5, 9-2 MW) built an early lead, faced an onslaught of 3-point shots, trailed at halftime, rallied, but lost. This time the defense was much better, but offensively USU struggled mightily.
The Aggies shot a season-low 32.8 percent from the field and made just 5 of 22 from long range (22.7 percent). The Rebels (6-6, 3-2) also shot 32.8 percent for the game, but made 13 of 30 from beyond the arc (43.3 percent).
“We weren’t great on offense all night, certainly in the second half,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “... On the offensive end, we need to find a way to get better. ... We need to finish plays.”
Seventeen turnovers also had the Aggie coach perplexed. It has been a trend of late.
“We had way too many turnovers,” Smith said. “It’s very difficult to win on the road with 17 turnovers. That’s been an issue for us for five of the last six games. We have to tighten that up and make better decisions with the ball.”
The Rebels used a 6-0 run and hit two 3-pointers in the final 48 seconds of the opening half to take a 39-34 lead into the break.
“We just couldn’t get stops in the first half,” said Aggie guard Marco Anthony, who finished with a game-high 18 points and matched his career best with nine rebounds. “They got a lot of easy looks and made some tough shots too. In the second half, we did pretty good defensively. But then on the offensive end we couldn’t get anything going. We missed a lot of easy shots.”
After trading 3-pointers to begin the second half, UNLV went more than five minutes without scoring. USU could muster just two baskets during that stretch and still trailed 42-41.
The Rebels hit a trey, then went nearly four minutes without scoring. The Aggies countered with just two free throws by Neemias Queta that ended a scoring drought of four-and-a-half minutes. Finding the bottom of the net was nearly impossible for both teams in the second half.
“I am proud with how we guarded in the second half,” Smith said. “We made a couple of adjustments and guarded at a high, high level.”
The Rebels would end up scoring eight unanswered points as they hit two more 3-pointers. They built a 53-43 lead with 4:15 to play.
Meanwhile, the Aggies went nearly seven-and-a-half minutes without scoring. During a span of 12 minutes, USU had two free throws on 19 possessions. The Aggies had seven turnovers and missed 14 shots from the field during that span.
Over the final four minutes of the game, USU did not turn the ball over and actually made it a game. Rollie Worster hit a 3-pointer, and Sean Bairstow made a nifty reverse layup to cut the Rebel lead in half. It could have been closer, but Worster missed the front end of a one-and-one.
UNLV made its 13th trey of the game, and after a missed three by the Aggies an intentional foul was called on Brock Miller when he wrapped up David Jenkins Jr. as he drove to the hoop. Jenkins made one free throw, and the Rebels turned the ball over on the ensuing possession after the technical.
Down nine with 1:19 to play, the Aggies proceeded to score eight points in 62 seconds. Anthony made two free throws, came up with a steal and fed Bean for a layup. UNLV’s Nick Blake missed a dunk on a breakaway, and Bean was fouled on the other end. Bean made both free throws. Once again Blake caught a long pass and this time did throw one down. However, he took an extra step and was called for traveling and no basket. Anthony was fouled on the other end on a busted play that had Smith scratching his head afterwards.
“We called a timeout and ran a set we’ve had since we’ve been here, and we don’t run it right,” Smith said. “It was kind of mind boggling. That was very frustrating. ... We decided to go for the tie and obviously didn’t execute it. That shouldn’t happen. That was very perplexing.”
Anthony brought USU to within 57-56 with 7.4 seconds to play after making both free throws.
The Rebels got the ball in under pressure to Jenkins, who was quickly swarmed by two Aggies. With 5.6 seconds to play, a foul was called. However, both television announcers on CBS Sports Network pointed out after watching a replay that Jenkins traveled, and USU should have had the ball down a point.
Jenkins made both free throws. The Aggies got off a 3-point shot, but Steven Ashworth’s attempt was partially blocked and came nowhere close as the final buzzer sounded.
“The game is never over until the final buzzer rings,” Anthony said. “We value that here. Although we didn’t get it done, we could have hung our head after they hit that deep three and could have quit, but we just kept playing.”
Bean was the only Aggie to join Anthony in double-digit scoring as he finished with 10 points. Worster was close with nine, while Queta had eight and Miller seven. Queta grabbed a team-best 11 rebounds, blocked six shots and had three assists. Anthony also had three assists.
The Rebels were led by Jenkins and Hamilton with 14 points each, while Wood netted 10. Hamilton, who was held more than six points below his season average, also had eight assists. Cheikh Mbacke Diong grabbed 11 rebounds.
“It was a really hard fought game on both sides,” UNLV head coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “Certainly a defensive battle down the stretch. We kind of bent ... fortunately we didn't break and made just enough plays defensively. ... Proud of our guys for finding a way to come out with a win. Even when our offense was kind of sputtering, we showed that we can hang our hat on that defense to bring home a victory.”
In a close game, reflection can always make one wonder what if. In the first half Worster and Bean were both knocked to the floor after making layups and nothing was called. Replays show they both were fouled and should have had and-one opportunities. Worster missed the front end of that one-and-one with USU trailing by five late in the game. The messed up play when the Aggies were supposed to go for the tie and the missed traveling call in the final seconds.
“We are holding our head high,” Anthony said. “This is basketball. This happens. If we leave our head down on games lost, we are going to keep losing games. We can’t afford to do that. We take the punch, learn from it and next time we change the outcome.”