<strong>LOGAN—</strong> Utah State will kick off its final road trip of the regular season Thursday night when the Aggies take on league leader Louisiana Tech, who is undefeated in Western Athletic Conference play. The basketball team will be trying to follow in the footsteps up the USU football team, which traveled to Ruston earlier this year and knocked off a ranked Bulldogs team.
The basketball version of the Bulldogs is 24-3 on the year and 14-0 in WAC play. LaTech entered the national rankings Monday as the No. 25 team in the AP Poll – the first time the team has been ranked since someone by the name of Karl Malone played there.
“Obviously this is a big challenge … Louisiana Tech is undefeated (in conference play) and nationally ranked,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said. “One thing we were talking about is that they normally haven’t drawn great crowds. I’m sure with being nationally ranked and with the year they’re having, we’ll see a lot better crowd than we’ve seen in all the years we’ve been going there.”
Louisiana Tech is averaging 4,314 fans during its last four home games, but only 3,257 at home for the season.
As a team, the Bulldogs don’t shoot an impressive percentage from the field or from beyond the arc, but they play stellar defense – holding opponents to 39 percent shooting on the season – force turnovers (17.6 per game), and crash the offensive glass.
“They have athletes all across the board really, and they press almost the entire game, after every shot they make they’re in it. We did OK against it last time we played them, but it’s definitely a focal point in practice. It’s just a matter of making better decisions,” USU sophomore forward Ben Clifford said.
“Our rebounding effort needs to be huge, our defensive effort … we definitely have to limit our turnovers. We did pretty good in our last game in all three of those categories, and we’re really just trying to get better. LaTech is ranked now, and they’re a great team.”
The first matchup between the two teams this season took place in the Spectrum, and was a dogfight. Neither team shot better than 33 percent for the game, and the Bulldogs struggled to a dismal 18 percent in the second half, making only five field goals. USU only managed 27 percent from the floor, as they were still adjusting to the loss of two starters. Nonetheless, the Aggies had a chance with a Clifford 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game.
“We’ve got to play aggressively. We’ve been playing better since the last time we played them, we’ve got better chemistry with the guys, so we’ve just got to play aggressive,” USU junior guard TeNale Roland said. “I feel like we’ve been on a better role. We’ve got a lot of practice in at different positions that we were learning then, and now we’ve got a lot of reps down so that helps us.”
Louisiana Tech is led by WAC Player of the Year candidate Raheem Appleby who averages 14.7 points per game, while shooting 40 percent. No other Bulldog player averages double figures, but they have a very balanced attack with five players that average between 6.9 and 8.6 points per game.
One of those players is senior guard Brandon Gibson who lit up the Aggies in the Spectrum with 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including 6-of-8 3-pointers. Appleby was relatively quiet in that game, but hit a big 3-pointer down the stretch to finish with 10 points and ultimately give the Bulldogs the win.
Facing a quality opponent on the road, Morrill joked about the importance of getting off to a good start.
“You play well. That’s the best way to get to a fast start. I always get a kick out of watching games on TV when they say ‘They’re hoping to get off to a fast start.’ Well who isn’t? When are you not? You always want to play well at the start of the game,” Morrill said.
“The reason we didn’t start very well against LaTech at our place is because they’re good. They caught us off-guard. We were in the first weekend of trying to adjust to our limited roster. I think we’ve gotten better since then. We’re quite a bit better offensively, but they’re on their home court and they’re going to play better than they did here. It’s going to take an awfully good effort to keep ourselves in the ball game.”
Thursday’s game will be aired nationally on ESPN3.com, an will also be televised locally on Altitude 2 (DirecTV Ch. 682, Dish Network Ch. 450). Play-by-play of the game will also be available on KVNU (610 AM/102.1 FM) and KLZX (95.9 FM) with the “Voice of the Aggies” Al Lewis. That broadcast will also be available online via 610kvnu.com.