COLUMN: Free throws and turnovers key to USU success

<strong>LOGAN—</strong> I was slacking a little bit in my Aggie coverage last week, with no columns due to the birth of my second daughter. However, it’s Monday and it’s back to the grind, and even though my attention was elsewhere last week, I still found time both Tuesday and Saturday to take in the games.

Obviously Tuesday’s loss at the buzzer to BYU was a tough pill to swallow. But, considering neither the Aggies nor the Cougars have won on the others home court in nearly a decade, I wasn’t shocked by the loss. It was an ugly game that was plagued by fouls – and bad calls – for both teams. The slow pace played into USU’s hands though, and gave them a chance at the end. For a team that is down three starters from the beginning of the year, that’s about all you can ask for in Provo.

What’s most frustrating from that game is the Aggies really cost themselves a win with things they had in their control: Free throws, turnovers, and the inability to stretch the zone. Utah State got to the line plenty of times, shooting 27 free throws. However, the Aggies only made 17 of those attempts (including missing the front end of multiple one-and-one’s) for a dismal 63 percent. Conversely, BYU cashed in on 28-of-33 attempts from the line, or 85 percent.

USU’s game against the Cougars was eerily similar to the Aggies game against Denver just a few nights earlier. Turnovers and missed attempts at the line cost Utah State in that game as well, and it also ended on a buzzer-beater. This Aggie team is playing hard, and really, for what they have, playing well. They are 5-2 in their past seven games, and very well could be 7-0. Unfortunately, the margin for error for this team is very small, and when those mistakes pop up, they cost the Aggies games.

Now on to Saturday’s BracketBuster game against Illinois State.

Utah State responded to the loss at the buzzer against Denver with a resounding win against a good New Mexico State team the following Saturday. The Aggies responded in a similar way after the loss in Provo. Stepping out of WACtion once again, USU welcomed Illinois State from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Spectrum.

Despite trailing by as many as 11 early, thanks to some serious 3-point shooting by the Redbirds, USU responded with run to take the lead heading into the half. After momentarily losing that lead after the break, the Aggies opened things up and pulled away from Illinois State down the stretch.

While free throw shooting still leaves a lot to be desired – USU only connected on 16-of-24 shots (66.7 percent) from the charity stripe – the Aggies cut down on their turnovers (12) and tied a season-high in assists with 23.

Most impressive to me from that game (other than Ben Clifford’s putback dunk) was just the total team effort from USU. Other than Tyler Brown, who did score a game-high 35 points, and Jackie Carmichael (20 points), no Redbird scored in double figures. As a team, Illinois State shot just 37 percent for the game, and after starting off hot from beyond the arc, finished 11-of-32 from long range.

Meanwhile, the Aggies had four players in double figures as Jarred Shaw led the charge with 18, while Spencer Butterfield had an efficient 16, TeNale Roland had a career-high 13, and Marvin Jean chipped in 10. Freshman Marcel Davis continued to impress as well, with what was probably his most complete game. He finished with nine points, eight assists, six rebounds, and two steals in 33 minutes of action.

As mentioned earlier, there is less room for error, but it is this type of play that makes the Aggies a dangerous team as we come down the home stretch of the regular season. Mathematically, Utah State is still in contention for second or third place in the conference, though, the Aggies are almost assuredly locked into the No. 4 or No. 5 spot. Whether they end up fourth or fifth in the conference really doesn’t matter, as their path in the WAC tournament will be the same.

This week, USU will step back into conference action with its final two road games of the regular season. This is a very important road trip for the Aggies, as both teams they will be facing – Louisiana Tech and UT Arlington – defeated Utah State in the Spectrum earlier this year. While a sweep dance may be a little too much to hope for with this road swing, if they can limit turnovers, knock down enough outside shots to open up the interior for Shaw, and make some freakin’ free throws, I think they’ll have a chance in both games.


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