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Aggies face Fullerton, Daniels

Ex-Ute assistant guiding Titans past adversity

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LOGAN — Former Utah assistant Donny Daniels hasn't had the best luck since returning to his alma mater as head coach. As his 15-56 record indicates, he's had a lot more setbacks than successes.

This season, though, there was a degree of optimism at Cal State Fullerton. The Titans had four returning starters and an NBA prospect playing center. Injuries and a suspension, though, quickly changed the team's complexion. Last week, they suited up a pair of walk-ons and dressed just eight players. Scoring leader Ralphy Holmes (16.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg) is battling a reoccurring shoulder injury, and Pepe Sow, the big man in the middle, has been suspended indefinitely since Dec. 17 after pleading guilty to the theft of a $17 knit cap from the campus bookstore.

All in all, Daniels is in a far different environment than he was at Utah, where he helped Rick Majerus guide the Utes to the national championship game in 1998.

The trials and tribulations are enough to make a grown man cry. Utah State coach Stew Morrill, however, isn't one of them. He's sensitive to Daniels' plight but also realizes Fullerton has simply moved on and excelled. The Titans gave Big West Conference-leading UC Irvine its only league loss and garnered a surprising road win at preseason favorite UC Santa Barbara. They also defeated Long Beach State to already surpass last year's conference win total — all without Sow.

"They've had different teams, different nights, but we're going to see a pretty good team. Right now they're pretty used to not playing with him and doing just fine," Morrill said. "(Donny) is going to have most of his team when he rolls in here. They might not have Pepe Sow, but they're going to have the same guys they won at Santa Barbara with. They're scary athletically."

Ralphy is as good a player as there is in this league."

The Titans (5-11, 3-3) are led by Holmes, who Morrill considers to be as good as anyone in the league. USU's ability to defend the sophomore guard is of extreme importance. So, too, is avoiding a slow start like the Aggies had in Thursday's come-from-behind win over UC Riverside.

The Aggies trailed by nine midway through the first half before storming back to win handily 77-58. Desmond Penigar, who led all scorers with 18 points, said USU simply resorted to "Aggie ball." Meaning they got more physical, rebounded and upped their defensive intensity.

"We came out lazy on defense. I guess we underestimated them a little bit," junior forward Cardell Butler said. "But we kept our composure. Coach got on us hard. It was a must that we had to come out and play hard."

Despite the impressive turn of events, Morrill had a hard time being happy with what he termed 28 minutes of good hard-nosed basketball. Games are 40 minutes long.

"There's no excuse for coming out that flat," he said.

Odds are, it won't happen again.

AG NOTES: USU leads the all-time series 32-16. The Aggies have defeated Fullerton 18 straight times in the Spectrum . . . Morrill is now 65-5 at home as USU's head coach . . . Nate Harris is coming off a career-high 13-point effort against Riverside . . . The Aggies hit the road the next two weeks. They'll visit Idaho next Saturday before heading to Santa Barbara and Cal Poly, Feb. 6-8.

E-mail: dirk@desnews.com