Up until the final eight seconds or so, Utah basketball player/ex-Utah State fan Josh Grant had done everything he could to lead the Utes past the Aggies in another biannual in-state grudge match. He had scored 31 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, made 4 steals and had generally frustrated Aggie fans who still call him a traitor for not following in his brother's footsteps to Logan.
However, two Grant shots in the final seconds wouldn't fall, allowing Utah State to escape with a 79-77 victory in the Spectrum Thursday night. The win, which evened the Aggies' record at 5-5, made up for a poor performance 10 days earlier in the Huntsman Center when the Utes (6-4) won by six.The Aggies, who've had a penchant for blowing halftime leads - they led at the half in three of their five losses - did a reversal this time, overcoming an 8-point halftime deficit. Kendall Youngblood was the main reason, as he scored 21 of his career-high 27 points in the second half. Randy Funk, who never seems to wake up until halftime, scored 12 of his 13 points in the second half and guards Matt Barnes and Albert Chappell each scored 11.
"I think we're coming of age," said USU Coach Kohn Smith, whose team plays at Weber State Saturday at 1 p.m. before embarking on the rigorous Big West schedule next week. "The team had two or three times where they could have folded and they didn't."
The Ags seemed to have the game well in hand with a 78-72 lead and the ball with just over two minutes left. But a turnover and a missed shot gave the Utes life as Van Gray canned an 18-footer and Grant sank a 3-pointer to cut the margin to one with just under a minute left.
After Utah State's Funk made one of two foul shots at the 36-second mark to put USU up by two, Utah worked the clock down and called time with 11 seconds left. After the Aggies called time to set up their defense, Utah's Craig Rydalch inbounded the ball to Grant, who turned and, under heavy pressure from USU's Youngblood, launched a shot from about 19 feet (he appeared to be right on the 3-point line). The ball bounced away and USU's Matt Barnes came up with it and was fouled with 3 seconds left.
When Barnes missed his free throw, the Utes completed a long pass to Grant, who fired up a 15-footer that appeared to beat the buzzer, although it wasn't clear if one official was waving off the attempt or signalling the game over. Nevertheless, the shot bounded away and the Aggies had their victory.
Utah interim coach Joe Cravens knew Grant and Tommy Connor would be well-covered and hoped to get the ball to someone more open on the first attempt, although he didn't fault Rydalch for his choice.
"We had a couple of guys open on that play that would have been a better choice than Josh," said Cravens. "I think if you look at the film you'll see Larry Cain setting up camp in the lane, he was so wide open."
Grant admitted he may have shot a little too quickly after receiving the inbounds pass.
"I wanted to dish it off, but maybe I was blind or something. I didn't see anybody and I started to panic and thought I was running out of time," he said.
While Grant, the former East High all-stater, was tying his career-high point total, another Utah native, former Bonneville High star Youngblood, had a career night at the other end.
"I felt real good - the shots were falling and my teammates were getting the ball to me and setting good picks," said the modest Youngblood.
"Kendall's just getting better and better as we go along," said USU's Smith.
Utah had scored 12 straight points late in the first half to take a 40-32 halftime lead. However, the Aggies came out smoking in the second half and regained the lead in less than four minutes at 45-44 on a three-point play by Youngblood.
Youngblood made a couple of key plays down the stretch. He scored on a drive to break a 71-71 tie and after having a basket disallowed because of charging, came back with a 3-point play off a steal to make it 76-71 with 3:50 left.
For Utah, besides Grant's 31, Tommy Connor scored 15 on 5 of 15 shooting and Keith Chapman, in foul trouble all evening, had 9 before fouling out.