It wasn’t pretty at times and much closer than many expected, but in the end No. 17 Utah State got the job done Friday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum.
The host Aggies used spurts throughout the game against North Carolina A&T to stay in front. In the end, USU was just too much for the visiting Aggies from the Tar Heel State in a 81-54 victory in front of 8,864 fans.
“It was a grind, especially early on,” USU forward Justin Bean said. “We just weren't ourselves and weren't playing our brand of basketball. We turned the ball over too much. That goes on everybody, from guards to bigs, just being locked in mentally. After one of the media timeouts, we really got it going. We locked in and trusted each other, played our brand of basketball.”
The Aggies (4-0) from Utah did turn the ball over 15 times, which was a season high. Nine of those came in the first half.
USU head coach Craig Smith had warned his team about the way NCA&T (1-3) played before the game and pointed out the face the Aggies from the east average nine steals a game. They had 10 on Friday night.
"This was a game that went how I felt it could go,” Smith said. “They (Aggies from NC) have a way of making the game get ugly and do a lot of different things, and you’ve got to give them credit. I thought they played well and made some shots. Coming into the game, they were averaging three made threes a game, shooting 22 percent, and to their credit, they go 7 for 20. They made almost as many threes tonight as they have all year. They made some plays, they made some tough shots too.”
Still, the host Aggies overcame the turnovers and 3-pointers by NCA&T by shooting a season-high 55.8 percent from the field.
"It was a tough game,” USU forward Alphonso Anderson said. “They came out hard. North Carolina A&T was a good team. We started off where we had moments we liked to turn the ball over, and that's what they like to do. After we buckled down, we figured it out and got rolling.”
And once again USU shared the ball well. Of the 29 made baskets Friday night, 22 were via an assist.
Sam Merrill and Diogo Brito each had five assists, while Brock Miller had four.
Anderson and Bean led the way in the scoring department for USU with 21 and 18 points, respectively. Both were career highs for the forwards. Joining Anderson and Bean in double-digit scoring was Miller (11) and Merrill (10).
Bean had his second double-double of the season with a game-best 10 rebounds. USU outrebounded NCA&T, 44-28.
The Aggies from the east were led by Ronald Jackson with 15 points. Fred Cleveland netted 14, while Tyler Maye chipped in 10.
It didn’t take long for the host Aggies to get going offensively. USU raced out to a 12-2 lead less than four minutes into the contest. Four different players scored, and Brito capped the surge with a 3-pointer.
The quick start did not carry over for the next five minutes. The white-clad Aggies went nearly five minutes between field goals and scored just one free throw during that timespan. NCA&T chipped away at its deficit, getting within 13-11 with 11:12 left in the opening half.
“I thought we got off to a great start,” Smith said. “Then we just went into a tailspin on offense where we were just throwing that thing all over the gym and throwing bounce passes to Kuba (Karwowski)’s ankles. I’m not sure the guys realize he’s 7-foot-2, so it’s hard for him to catch them at the ankles. We just tried to play, maybe not too unselfish, but instead of making some of the simple plays we were trying to make highlight reel plays, and then we got better with that.”
An Anderson dunk off a nice pass from Brito ended the field-goal drought and sparked a 13-2 run by the hosts. Anderson and Brito scored two buckets each, while Miller gave USU a 26-13 lead with a 3-pointer with 7:43 left in the first half.
“I just try to go in and play as hard as I can and make the right plays,” said Anderson, who comes off the bench.
USU built its largest lead of the first half with a 7-0 run. Anderson scored the first five points and then passed to Bean for a layup and a 35-20 lead with 2:45 to play before the break.
The host Aggies took a 38-23 lead into halftime.
Five turnovers in the early going of the second half for the hosts let the visitors inch back into the game. NCA&T used a 13-4 run to start the second half and get within 42-36 with 14 minutes to play.
The host Aggies came to life scoring nine straight points and going on a 15-3 run to build a 57-39 lead. USU was never really threatened after that.
“We could have extended the lead in the first half, but turnovers, missed shots and free throws kept us from doing that,” Bean said. “We created some mismatches and were able to extend our lead.”
USU scored the final six points of the game for the largest lead of the contest.
USU improved to 60-18 all-time as an AP ranked team. … USU improved to 30-2 under Smith when leading at halftime. … For the fourth straight game, USU had at least four athletes score in double figures. … Merrill scored in double figures for the 81st time in his career. It is also the 27th straight game the senior guard has scored in double figures, dating back to last season. With five assists Friday, Merrill also moved past Kris Clark (370) and into fifth on the career assists list with 371. With his 34 minutes played, Merrill moved past Eric Franson (3,349 minutes) and into 10th place in career minutes with 3,361. … Freshman center Trevin Dorius scored a career-high seven points and grabbed a career-high six rebounds. … This was the first meeting between the Aggies and Aggies.
FOUR GAMES, FOUR LEADERS
Through the first four games to start the 2019-20 season, USU has had a different player lead the team in scoring.
“In four different games we’ve had four different leading scorers, so that’s a positive thing to have some balance that way,” Smith said.
Merrill had 28 points against Montana State. Bean led the team against Weber State with a career-high 18 points. It was Miller’s turn against Denver as he had a career-high 27 points. Against North Carolina A&T, Anderson was the top Aggie with, yes, a career-high 21 points.
Is there any friendly competition between the players to be the scoring leader?
“No,” Bean said. “It may seem like that on the outside, but at the end of the day we just care what it says by our logo at the end of the game. It’s all team ball. You know Sam (Merrill). He could shoot every possession and get a good look, but he is a team guy. We go with the best option on offense.”
Another tough call, but the nod goes to the guy in the mask. Bean recorded his second double-double of the young season with 18 points and 10 rebounds, despite leaving the game with a cramp. He returned to grab a couple of more boards to reach the double-double. The sophomore forward made 8 of 12 shots from the field and 2 of 3 from the foul line. Bean also matched his career highs in assists (3) and blocks (2). He also had one steal and played 31 minutes.
AGGIE DUNK COUNT
The first dunk of the game came nine minutes into the contest when Anderson took a pass from Brito and rammed it home for the lone slam of the first 20 minutes.
Trevin Dorius grabbed a rebound late in the game and threw it down for the only dunk of the second half.
Season count: Dorius 3, Karawowski 2, Bean 2, Anderson 2, Brito 1, Bairstow 1.
The Aggies wrap up their five-game homestand to start the season on Monday. Up next for USU is a date with UT San Antonio (0-4) at 7 p.m. The Roadrunners last played in the Sunshine Slam in Florida, falling to Delaware, 91-79, last Sunday.