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Aggies pour it on in the second half against NAIA Warriors

LOGAN — For the first 23 minutes of Saturday night’s contest at Utah State, it was Life Pacific that played like the game was a life-or-death situation.

But with 17 minutes to go, the Aggies finally managed to turn the tide on the Warriors and ended up turning a modest seven-point lead into a 34-point blowout of the NAIA team from San Dimas, California.

“I’m happy that we responded in the second half. I thought we played with some energy, some pop, some togetherness that we needed,” USU head coach Tim Duryea said following his team’s 96-62 victory at the Spectrum.

“And we got some guys’ heads up offensively, developed some confidence, made some plays and saw the ball go in the basket.”

Utah State (6-6) ended up shooting an even 60 percent from the floor while going 13 for 26 from 3-point range. The Aggies also finished with two 20-point scorers for the second straight game as junior forward Dwayne Brown Jr. (24 points) and sophomore guard Koby McEwen (20 points) both reached that number, while USU had five players score in double-digits for the first time this season.

The 24 points were a new career-high for Brown, who went 11 for 15 from the field and also pulled down seven rebounds.

“I’m one of those players that wants to let the game come to me,” Brown said. “Sometimes I don’t take threes that I should take, and make the game a little harder than I should. But I felt really comfortable today; the confidence was there.”

Meanwhile, Aggie fans were certainly happy to see McEwen knock down 7-of-11 field-goal attempts, including 5 of 9 shots from 3-point range. The Toronto native, who fouled out in USU’s loss at Utah on Dec. 9 without scoring a point, asked to come out of Saturday’s game with five minutes to go in the first half, but he still ended up playing 26 minutes while clearly not feeling well.

“Koby was battling a little sickness today, to be honest,” Duryea said. “It was nothing physically in terms of the (sprained) ankle. Just a little sickness, and I’m really proud of him for the way he played through that and didn’t make any issue of it. He didn’t say anything to me, but he was battling that a little bit.”

Utah State needed all the help it could get Saturday, especially in the frontcourt, which was without senior forward Alex Dargenton and freshman forward Klay Stall. Dargenton suffered a bad ankle sprain at the end of practice on Friday, and Duryea said he expects his team’s fourth-leading scorer (8.2 ppg) to miss a couple of weeks. But Stall, who has battled back issues all season, had an epidural earlier in the week, and Duryea is optimistic that he will be available for USU’s next game against Youngstown State Wednesday night.

But even though the Aggies had to play small against the Warriors, it apparently wasn’t small enough, at least in the first half.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to guard a team like that because they’re so small and quick,” noted USU guard Sam Merrill, who finished with 14 points. “We had a bit of struggle early on guarding them, and they ended up with nine 3-pointers in the first half.

“But we adjusted to that, and picked up our intensity a little bit.”

Life Pacific’s one true big man, 6-foot-7, 235-pound Jonathan Cortez, led the Warriors (6-6) with 16 points and four 3-pointers, while 5-foot-8 senior guard Mark Eden added 15 points and three treys.

But after going 9 for 19 from 3-point range in the first half, Life Pacific knocked down just 3 of 16 attempts from long range in the second half. The Warriors, who shot just 34.9 percent from the field for the game, led by as many as four points in the first half and trailed by just 40-35 at halftime.

Junior forward Quinn Taylor scored all of his 10 points in the first half while playing all 20 minutes, while senior guard Julion Pearre scored 10 of his season-high 12 points in the second half as the Aggies left the Warriors behind with a 45-17 spurt.

“In the first half, we came out very cocky, in a way,” Brown said. “We didn’t do what we prepped, we didn’t do what we planned, and we knew they were going to shoot a lot of threes. … But we picked it up in the second half, and we did just fine.

“I don’t think anybody did a bad job, but we got the job done. So, I’m happy about the win, and we can move forward from that.”