With 10:27 to play Saturday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, visiting BYU held a 57-46 lead.
It was not looking good for the Utah State men’s basketball team in its home opener. The Aggies had ended a field goal drought of more than four minutes, but still trailed by 11 points.
Then the Cougars had a dry spell of their own. In 10 possessions over a five-minute span, BYU mustered just one point and had four turnovers.
USU reeled off 10 unanswered points to get within one and then tied it up at 58-58 with 5:14 to play on a jumper by Rollie Worster. It appeared the Aggies had captured the momentum.
Tied at 60-60 with 4:53 left in the contest after a drive to the bucket by USU guard Marco Anthony, the Cougars went more than four minutes without a field goal and had just one free throw. However, the Aggies didn’t fare any better and couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity.
USU had six possessions where it could have taken the lead and didn’t. Anthony missed two free throws, Sean Bairstow missed an open 3-point shot, Worster missed a 3-point attempt, Neemias Queta made one free throw after the Cougars made one, Queta missed a layup and then Queta missed another close-range shot.
“We were just missing shots,” said Aggie guard Marco Anthony, who finished with 17 points and a career-high seven rebounds. “I feel like all of the shots we took were great shots, but unfortunately they didn’t go in. That happens sometimes.”
After missing 3-point shots on two previous trips down the court, the Cougars made one with 57 ticks left on the clock when Connor Harding hit one from the corner. BYU led the rest of the way and notched a 67-64 victory.
“Really proud of our second-half effort, really proud of our guys for fighting in the second half.” said assistant head coach Eric Peterson, who was filling in for head coach Craig Smith who was absent with COVID-19. “... I thought our guys really fought. At the end of the day, our first half just wasn’t good enough. In the locker room afterward, we talked about how there’s such a small margin for error when you play really good teams.”
Queta led the Aggies (1-3) with 18 points on 7 of 18 shooting from the field and 4 of 9 from the foul line. Peterson was asked about the number of shots the 7-foot center missed, most in the paint.
“If we own the paint, I think we have a great chance to win every single night,” Peterson said. “... We got fouled in there and missed some free throws (20 of 29 for the game at the foul line) and we also missed some point-blank shots that we usually make in there.
“... He (Queta) is one of the best players in the country, and we are going to go to him over and over and over again all year long, especially if they are playing one-on-one in the post. ... We are going to Neemi all year long and that’s not going to change.”
Even being down three, the Aggies still had chances in the final seconds. Worster made two free throws to make it a one-point game with 33 seconds to play. USU fouled, and Alex Barcello made just one foul shot.
On the ensuing possession, Worster missed a shot with 16 seconds left, but grabbed the rebound and went to the basket. The freshman scored and a foul was called. However, the made basket was waved off to the disgust of the Aggie fans. Worster made the first free throw, but missed the second with 11.9 seconds to play. Worster was 7 of 8 on the game from the foul line.
Forced to foul, the Aggies sent Barcello to the line. He made both. USU had six seconds to get off a 3-point shot and did, but Worster’s attempt was slightly off.
“We believe in Rollie with everything we have,” Peterson said. “We thought there was a chance they (Cougars) would foul, being up three, so we couldn’t get a shot off, so we wanted to get a quick pitch. I thought he (Worster) got a good look.”
It was the first home-opening loss for the Aggies in 27 years.
“It was disappointing, but we know we got better,” Anthony said. “... We started off really strong, then the whole second half I felt like we brought it all 20 minutes. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough for us to pull it off.”
The Cougars (5-1) held a 39-29 lead at halftime. USU jumped out to a 12-6 lead in the early going of the game, but had several scoring droughts before the break.
There were 1,628 fans allowed into the Spectrum Saturday. The Cougars have been playing in front of no fans to this point.
“To have some fans in the building was like heaven; it was so fantastic,” BYU head coach Mark Pope said. “I don’t know where that (fans) go from here, but man it was good and these fans don’t even like us. It was just fun to have people in the gym.”
Worster joined Queta and Anthony in double-digit scoring with 15 and also had a game-high five assists. Justin Bean grabbed a game and season-best 13 rebounds.
The Cougars were led by Barcello with a game-best 23 points. Caleb Lohner chipped in 11 points and grabbed a team-best six boards.
The Aggies shot a season-low 35.6 percent from the field and a season-low from 3-point range at 15.4 percent (2 of 13). … USU won the rebound battle, 42-35, for the third straight game. … The Aggies tied their season low in turnovers with 13 and had a season-high eight steals. … The Cougars shot 36.4 percent from 3-point range, which is a season low for an Aggie opponent, and the eight made treys was also a season low. … The Cougars lead the all-time series with the Aggies, 145-92.