LOGAN – It might not be March, but it may as well have been.
In what may have been a preview of the Mountain West title game, Utah State fell short in a 77-68 loss to San Diego State. Senior Sam Merrill led the Aggies with 26 points.
“I think we played good. San Diego State just played better,” sophomore Neemias Queta said. “We’ve just got to give them hats off. They hit big shots whenever they needed to. I think we’re just going to keep on climbing. We’re going to get better from these losses and I think we’re going to grow from them.”
From the onset, each team brought a defensive intensity to match the March-like atmosphere. With both offenses struggling to adapt to the defensive pressure, it was the Aztecs who broke through first with an 8-0 run to go up 19-11 with 8:15 remaining in the first half. As if the dam burst, each offense then came to life. An offensive rebound and put-back from sophomore Brock Miller broke a scoreless streak of over over five minutes for Utah State. But with each successful Aggie possession, the Aztecs answered, slowly building a double-digit lead at 34-23 with with 2:39 remaining. USU trimmed the lead to 34-27 by halftime courtesy of several trips to the free throw line, but left even more opportunities at the charity stripe, going 5-10 from the line in the first half.
“It doesn’t happen very often,” Merrill said of USU’s FT woes. “We were one of the best free throw shooting teams in the country. That stuff happens and obviously it did hurt because we were down seven and missed five (FTs) but two front ends, so we were essentially 5-12 in the first half. You never want to dig a hole and that was rough.”
Coming out of the locker rooms, USU’s odds of a comeback took an immediate downturn when Queta picked up three quick fouls, sending him to the bench. In 16 first-half minutes, Queta tallied seven points and 10 rebounds. With him sidelined, SDSU took advantage, blitzing USU with a 14-4 run to go up 53-37 with 13:14 remaining in the contest.
Facing a possible route, the Aggies responded as seniors Diogo Brito and Sam Merrill each sank 3-pointers as part of a 8-0 run to climb back into the game. San Diego State held stout, however, pushing the margin back to 13 at 63-50. A 6-0 run from USU trimmed the lead to a mere seven points, though it proved to be USU’s final attempt at a comeback as SDSU held the Aggies at bay through the final minutes.
“It was a tough week for the Aggies certainly,” head coach Craig Smith said, “but we have no time to feel sorry for ourselves and sulk. It should hurt. It should be painful. But when you play hard and you give it everything you got, sometimes it doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to be. But I was proud of our effort and we’re going to find out what we’re really made of.”
In another return from injury, Queta played a season-high 30 minutes, posting a double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds plus three assists and three blocks.
“Exhausted,” Queta said about playing 30 minutes. “I haven’t played in a while. It just felt great to be back out there. I was just trying to have as much fun as I could.”
Junior Abel Porter was USU’s next-highest scorer behind Merrill and Queta with nine points alongside five assists. Sophomore Justin Bean was largely held in check, scoring eight points and grabbing a season-low four rebounds.
Of the many factors of the game, Utah State could look to their shooting percentages as a scapegoat for the loss. The Aggies ended up shooting 42.6 percent from the floor and 26.1 percent from behind the arc. The shooting effort follows Utah State’s season-worst shooting performance versus UNLV, where the Aggies shot only 32.7 percent from the field and a dismal 10.5 percent from 3-point range. The charity stripe offered no respite for the Aggies either, as USU shot only 16-24 from the FT line.
“We’ve been inconsistent, no doubt,” coach Smith said. “It’s two-fold: guys getting in the gym to get extra shots. We’re certainly looking at ourselves and what can we do as a coaching staff to help our guys be put in better position to get more rhythm shots. Good passing teams are good shooting teams, and we’ve been a little inconsistent with how we’re moving the ball and sharing the ball.”
At 2-2, Utah State is not in unfamiliar territory. Last season, the Aggies dropped two of their first three games in MW play before reeling off 14 wins in their final 15 games to claim a share of the regular season conference title.
“I think it’s a benefit because you know you can do it and we’ve done it before,” coach Smith said. “At the same time, I don’t think you can look at it like that. I think you’ve got to look at like let’s get better tomorrow and then let’s get better again on Monday and now we have an opportunity on Tuesday to go earn a victory. And every night you have to go out and earn it… I don’t think any of our guys thought that initially we could do what we did last year. We just approached it like ‘let’s go beat Wyoming. Let’s go beat San Jose. Let’s beat Colorado State.’ I think that’s the mindset that you have to have.”
Fresh off Utah State’s first two-game losing streak under coach Smith, the Aggies face a trip to Colroado Springs on Wednesday to take on Air Force. Tip-off is currently scheduled for 9:00 pm MST.