It wasn't the defensive performance Kayla Ard was hoping for from her Aggies, but they certainly got the job done on the biggest possession of the game.
Utah State hounded Westminster's Sarah McGinley into an off-balance 3-pointer with nine seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and escaped with a 83-78 victory over the Division II Griffins in a non-conference women's basketball game on Tuesday evening at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. It was the 2021-21 season opener for both teams.
Had McGinley drained that 3-ball, the Griffins would have pulled even at 81-81. However, the shot was well off the mark, the Aggies tracked down the rebound and Kaylin Randhawa knocked down a pair of free throws to ice the game.
"That's the kind of defense that we practice in practice every day, so I'm not really sure why we're not doing that the whole game," said Ard, who is entering her second season in charge of USU's program. "I thought our team was prepped really well for this (Westminster) team. I thought that we really stressed not to overlook this team. That are very good, very capable of beating us, giving us a good game, and I don't think our kids did, I don't think they overlooked them. I just think that's a very good basketball team that we played tonight."
USU was not tested in last Monday's exhibition game, a 90-43 drubbing of Fort Lewis College at the Spectrum. However, there's no question the Aggies needed to dig deep to prevail in their opener, which should be a valuable experience moving forward.
"It was pretty important," USU forward Adryana Quezada said. "It kind of helped us figure out who we are as a team. You know, we want to tough it out (in close games like that)."
The Aggies were never really able to pull away from the Griffins, although they never trailed in the fourth quarter. USU led by as many as eight points on two occasions during the final 10 minutes of action.
Westminster scored five straight points to pare its deficit to 66-64 with 5:50 left in the contest, but USU immediately responded with a trey by Olivia Wikstrom. Wikstrom scored nine of her 12 points in the fourth quarter.
E'Lease Stafford buried a pair of huge 3-balls in the final four minutes of action to give the hosts just enough breathing room. Stafford went 4 for 6 from downtown.
"I was so happy for her because she's in the gym shooting probably more than anybody on this team and that's easily a kid that could be starting for us," Ard said. "We have several kids that could be starting and she's just doing a great job in her role. She hasn't complained one time about not being in the starting lineup."
To their credit, the Griffins were undaunted by USU's clutch shooting from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter. Case in point: McGinley drained treys on back-to-back possessions in the final 70 seconds of play to slice her team's deficit to 79-78.
Nevertheless, Randhawa went 4 for 4 from the free throw line during the last 25 seconds of action to slam the door for the hosts.
"It's not the way I wanted it to go today, obviously," Ard said. "I do like it was a test for us early on. It tells me a lot about my team. ... I think we're going to have a lot (of tough games) this year. We're still trying to figure out what we've got, who we are as a team, but I like the test early on. I would have preferred it had been a little easier, I would have preferred our defense had been better in the first half. But I thought we did what we had to do when the game was on the line. I am proud of them for that. It was a ugly win, but it is a win. We are 1-0, so I will take it."
The Aggies only converted on 33.3 percent of their field goal attempts in the opening half, but shot 50 percent after halfime (15 of 30). Better offensive efficiency was a necessity for USU as Westminster shot 50 percent or better during the first three quarters. The Griffins went 7 for 18 from the field in the fourth quarter and ended up shooting at a .476 clip (32 for 67).
USU trailed by one point after the first quarter (21-20) and by two points at the half (41-39). The Aggies accumulated 11 offensive rebounds in the opening half and 20 in the contest, and that was one of the biggest reasons they were able to emerge victorious.
"I'd say it helped, definitely," Quezada said of the offensive rebounds. "We weren't making all of our shots that we usually do, so the offensive rebounds gave us second points, second chances that we needed."
The first half featured nine lead changes and eight ties. Westminster went on a 6-0 run early in the third quarter to extend its lead to 49-43. USU trailed the entire third quarter until Randhawa sank a free throw to give her team a 57-56 advantage with 2:56 remaining in the quarter.
The Aggies never trailed again as they outscored the Griffins 12-2 during a four-plus-minute stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters.
It was another balanced offensive performance from the Aggies, who had five players score in double digits --- just like they did against Fort Lewis. Quezada and Randhawa both finished with 16 points, followed by Stafford with 14, Wikstrom with 12 and Laci Hawthorne with 11. Quezada also pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds, while Meagan Mendazona contributed with six points, five boards, four assists and three steals.
"Our scoring is very spread out and I love that," Ard said. "It will be very hard to scout us offensively and I think that's going to be really good for us. I think our talent level is a lot better than it was last year. We need to play together a little bit better on offense. We only had 13 assists. I'd like for us to have about 20 assists a game. ... But I think something that really showed for me tonight was our fight. ... I thought we showed some toughness. (Our players) were going to do whatever they needed to do to win the game and walk out of here in front of Aggie Nation with a win."
Ard made it a point to thank the Aggie student section during her post-game press conference.
"I want to give them a shout out because I'm not sure that we would have won that game without them here," she said.
Former BYU guard Ashley Greenwood was outstanding for Westminster as she poured in 28 points and went 13 of 16 from the field. Greenwood also dished out a game-best five assists.
McGinley finished with 18 points for the Griffins, while former Sky View star Hunter Krebs chipped in with 12 points, two rebounds and a blocked shot. The Hyde Park native is entering her fifth season as a starter for Westminster, which went 13-6 during the 2020-21 campaign. The forward has career averages of 14.0 points and 5.4 rebounds an outing, and has averaged at least 12.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game every season.