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Utah State basketball: Aggies rally back from massive hole, but still lose to Wyoming

LOGAN — Late in the second half, it looked like it was going to be the Cache Valley version of the “Minneapolis Miracle” that the Minnesota Vikings pulled off last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.

But, while Utah State miraculously rallied back from a 22-point deficit against Wyoming to take a one-point lead, that was as good as it got for the Aggies Saturday night at the Spectrum. Undaunted by letting their huge lead get away, the Cowboys closed out the contest with a 22-13 run over the final five minutes to secure an 85-77 road victory.

“We can't let ourselves get down like that, a deficit that big,” USU sophomore guard Sam Merrill said. “Obviously, we came back and even took a lead, but from that point on we had a bunch of defensive breakdowns and too many dumb offensive mistakes, and you can't have that if you expect to win against a good team.”

The win was the first in Logan for Wyoming (12-7 overall, 3-3 in the Mountain West) since 1971, as the Cowboys had lost their five previous visits to the Spectrum.

Wyoming big men Alan Herndon (21 points) and Hayden Dalton (20 points) led the way for the Cowboys, helping send Utah State to a season-worst fourth straight loss.

Merrill (19 points, three 3-pointers) led Utah State in scoring while playing all 40 minutes, and backcourt mate Koby McEwen logged 39 minutes (he briefly came out after being poked in the eye) while compiling his first career double-double (17 points, 12 rebounds).

The Aggies shot a mere 28 percent from the field in the first half, but 55.2 percent in the second half. The Cowboys actually shot better in the second half (48.1 percent) than the first half (43.8 percent) despite being outscored 52-43 after halftime.

“The message at halftime was we have to compete,” USU head coach Tim Duryea said. “There were no technical adjustments, nothing along those lines. It was, 'Hey, let’s do what we planned to do.’ But you have to compete.”

Because of USU’s renewed determination after halftime, Wyoming’s historic victory certainly didn’t come as easy as it appeared it would in the first half when the Aggies (10-11, 3-5) were held without a field goal for just short of 12 minutes. After taking a 15-14 lead on a 3-pointer by Daron Henson with 12:49 to go before halftime, USU picked up just a handful of free throws while the Cowboys put together a stunning, 28-5 spurt.

“The first half, we really just got out-competed,” Duryea declared. “They played harder, they cut harder, they moved faster and they pushed the ball harder.”

Another 3-pointer by Henson with 71 seconds remaining in the first half finally ended Utah State’s field-goal-less drought at 11:38, and apparently stunned Wyoming head coach Allen Edwards so much that he immediately called a timeout. It didn’t help, however, as the Aggies also picked up a layup by McEwen in the final minute to close the very big gap to 42-25 at intermission.

“I think that 5-0 run at the end of the half gave us a breath of life,” Duryea noted.

With that breath, the Aggies wasted no time getting back into the game early in the second half, scoring seven points in the first 77 seconds to get Wyoming’s lead down to 10 points. Continued hot shooting by the hosts — the Aggies made 9 of 11 shots, including 5 of 6 three-point attempts in the opening five minutes of the second half — soon left Wyoming clinging a 52-49 lead.

The Cowboys then managed to slow the surge, with Utah State eventually getting to within two points and then one point without being able to regain the lead. A pair of free throws by McEwen, who went 10 for 10 from the line, finally put USU over the top, 62-61, with 7:16 remaining. Following two free throws by Wyoming’s Justin James, two more free throws by USU’s Dwayne Brown Jr. put Utah State back in front 64-63.

But the long, athletic Cowboys took over from there, quickly regaining control of the contest on three straight, well-executed offensive possessions that led to an easy score by James and two more even easier scores by Herndon.

“Give Tim credit. His team came out at halftime with some fight and did a great job of coming back and taking the lead, obviously,” Edwards said. “But what I loved about that was our guys didn't panic. We still stayed the course, and we found a way to get (Hayden Dalton) and (Alan Herndon) down around 30 minutes a game, and they were just fresher down the stretch and were able to make plays for us.”

Fatigue certainly seemed to be a factor for the Aggies down the stretch, who were playing without senior forward Alex Dargenton, who sprained his “good” ankle earlier in the week. Junior forward Quinn Taylor also picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, leaving Duryea even less depth to call upon.

“Fatigue … I would say there is a lot of that,” Duryea admitted. “But we can’t go there. When we’re tired, we can’t play tired. We can be tired, but we can’t play like we’re tired.”

The Aggies are scheduled to return to action Wednesday night at the Spectrum against Air Force (8-10, 2-4), but that game may or may not happen. The government shutdown postponed Saturday’s Fresno State-Air Force game, and could do the same for the Falcons-Aggies contest if things are not resolved in Washington, D.C., in the next couple of days.