LAS VEGAS — It shouldn’t have been much of a problem for Utah State in its first-round game of the Mountain West Conference basketball tournament. The Aggies were going against a troubled Colorado State team that had lost not one, but two coaches during the past month not to mention 11 of its last 12 games.
Yet there the Aggies found themselves, down by 15 points in the early stages of the Wednesday afternoon game at the Thomas & Mack Center, clanging their shots, throwing the ball away and not doing much of anything well.
“I don’t know if it was nerves or what it was, but we were flat,” said Utah State coach Tim Duryea. “We were sluggish, no energy on either end of the floor and they took advantage of that.”
The Aggies didn’t panic, however, and slowly got back in the game closing the gap to two by halftime. Once they took the lead in the second half, they never gave it up on their way to a 76-65 victory over the Rams as Koby McEwen led the way with 25 points.
The win keeps the Aggies’ season alive for at least another day as they’ll take on No. 2 seed Boise State Thursday at 7 p.m. MT.
Highlights from Game 2 of the 2018 @MountainWest Men’s Basketball Tournament as No. 7 @USUBasketball defeats No. 10 @CSUMensBball, 76-65 #MWMadness https://t.co/AYX2LlyNu9 @MW_MBB pic.twitter.com/TZFwOEGFzH— Mountain West (@MountainWest) March 8, 2018
The Aggies had lost to Colorado State 84-75 at home back in early January in their only regular-season meeting with the Rams. But things went south from there for the Rams, who won only two more games the rest of the season.
Colorado State head coach Larry Eustachy, who coached at Utah State for five seasons (1994-98), was placed on administrative leave in early February for abusive behavior towards players and eventually resigned on Feb. 26.
Assistant coach Steve Barnes took over for Eustachy as interim coach, but was suspended with pay for “behavior mimicking Eustachy’s.” Then it was left to another assistant, Jase Herl, to pick up the pieces and he’s been trying to hold the ship together.
He seemed to have done a pretty good job Wednesday as the Rams came out with energy and outplayed a flat Aggie squad over the first 10 minutes, racing out to a 20-5 lead as the Aggies missed nine of their first 10 shots and committed five turnovers.
“It was a rough start — you don’t get away with that too often,” said Duryea.
Despite the poor start, the players weren’t overly concerned.
“I wasn’t worried in terms of making baskets because that’s going to happen in games,” said McEwen. “We were getting good shots . . . we just couldn’t make any.”
“I wasn’t worried either because basketball is a game of runs,” said Dwayne Brown, who finished with 15 points and eight rebounds.
Suddenly the shots started to fall. Senior guard Julion Pearre led the way, sinking four straight 3-pointers from the 5:40 mark to the 1:10 mark to bring the Aggies to a tie at 33 before the Rams took a 35-33 lead into the locker room.
The Aggies went ahead for good early in the second half on back-to-back jumpers by Sam Merrill, who had been shut out in the first half. The Rams stayed close and only trailed 66-62 with under five minutes left when Merrill made two more baskets, both on drives to the basket.
Colorado State, which finished its season at 11-21, was led by Anthony Bonner with 15 points, Prentiss Nixon with 14 and Che Bob with 12 points. Both Deion James and Nico Carvacho each had 10 rebounds.
AGGIE NOTES: With the victory, the Aggies evened their season record at 16-16. They need a win Thursday to avoid their second straight losing season after 22 straight winning seasons . . . This marks the third straight year the Aggies have won their first-round game at the MWC tourney. They knocked off Wyoming in 2016 as the No. 8 seed and defeated San Jose State as the No. 8 seed last year . . . USU shot 50 percent from the field after starting the game 2 for 12 . . . The Rams were hurt by poor free throw shooting as they made just 7 of 14 on the night . . . With the win, USU leads the all-time series over CSU 58-40 . . . If the Aggies win Thursday, they’ll take on the winner of the New Mexico-Wyoming game Friday at 9:30 p.m. . . . The Aggies defeated Boise State 71-65 at home in mid-February and lost just 71-67 at Boise in mid-January . . . In the first game Wednesday, UNLV had to go to overtime to defeat Air Force 97-90. The Rebels will take on No. 1 seed Nevada Thursday at noon.