Utah State was criticized all season for scheduling a basketball game off-campus, in the high-rent district, the Delta Center, where those pro guys play.

And USU coach Larry Eustachy says he was more nervous about Saturday night's "Holiday Hoopla" game with Southern Utah than he had been about the game Dec. 1 with BYU because Eustachy said he knew how good the T-Birds are but most people would expect the Aggies to dominate this first-ever meeting with SUU. If they didn't, it would do harm, albeit unjustified, to the Aggie public reputation.It turned out the criticism was off-base, and so was any public image that the T-Birds can't hack it in in-state play.

Utah State did dominate much of the game, ending with a 76-63 win before 7,324 in the Delta Center Saturday, but Southern Utah was a team to be reckoned with.

The T-Birds' scrappy defense, perhaps taking advantage of an Aggie team with two point guards missing and Roddie Anderson having practiced more as a forward than field general, forced USU into 13 turnovers in the first 16 minutes of play, and coach Bill Evans' Southern Utah team appeared at times to be ready to put the Aggies away.

Southern Utah led by four at 10:40 of the first half, and it cut a second-half USU lead that had been as much as 13 points several times down to four, 61-57, with 5:09 remaining by making three 3-pointers in a row, a two-pointer and another three.

In the end, Utah State's strong inside game won out over SUU's sometimes-torrid outside game. Aggie 6-foot-7 center Eric Franson scored 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, 12 in the second half, and Silas Mills scored 23 and rebounded 11. SUU's quality big man, Sean Allen, scored 16 and rebounded eight, with eight points and four rebounds in each half.

SUU's long-range offense meant it got no Aggies in foul trouble, except the point guard (Anderson had four fouls). Evans said he told the officials at halftime SUU tied an NCAA record with no free-throw attempts the first half. USU had only three fouls that half, but why foul a 20-foot shot? SUU finished the game making one of five free throws.

But both teams went away feeling good about themselves.

"That was a heckuva college basketball game. Both teams played well," said Evans, whose team has gained some statewide attention with its well-played game vs. BYU and 140-point score against South Alabama in the Cougar Classic as well as a competitive effort that went as long as the three-pointers held out Saturday. "I'd like to get a little more of their attention," Evans said. "I'd like to beat them." But he was satisfied with SUU's game, other than its outside-only offense that he said was "too passive."

Still, Evans gives the green light to any three-point shots. "As long as we shoot 43 percent (average), we'll keep shooting threes," he said.

"I haven't been more happy with my team than I am now," said Eustachy, who'd said before the game that if USU could win, it would be the Aggies' best win so far.

Southern Utah mystified USU at times by stealing entry passes to Franson or Mills at the baseline or tipping the ball away from USU's guards without fouling.

"We just try to pick up the defensive intensity and help our big men if we can," said SUU point guard Keith Berard (11 points). "You just move your feet and keep your hands really active."

At halftime, said Franson, Eustachy told his team to grasp the ball harder and told receivers to move to the ball. "We were stronger with it," Franson said.

Southern Utah (4-3) returns to Cedar City now for its first home game since Dec. 5, hosting Montana State Tuesday. Utah State (3-1) hosts Utah (5-2) Friday at the Smith Spectrum.