It was a dark ending to Blackout Night at the Spectrum Thursday for the Aggies and their fans.
Visiting mid-major powerhouse Saint Mary’s managed to pull out a 60-58 victory on the strength of two free throws by junior forward Alex Ducas with just under a second left.
The Aggies were still able to set themselves to tie or win the game by executing a long pass from Brandon Horvath to Justin Bean and getting a quick timeout with 0.6 remaining, but Utah State wasn’t able to get a clean shot off of its inbounds pass and the ball went out of bounds. While the game clock indicated that there was 0.5 seconds remaining, the officials decided after a video review that the clock hadn’t started on time and that the game was over.
When the stunned crowd of 8,888 realized what had happened, the boos rained down on the officiating crew as it quickly headed for the tunnel.
“It was a bitter loss, there’s really no shying away from that, obviously,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “A disappointed locker room, but not broken. A very quiet locker room, but a locker room that has grit, has toughness, has a love for one another and a connectivity that is unique.
“And so when you have a team like that, you can recover from disappointment.”
Coming into the game, Utah State (6-2) has reeled off six straight victories since losing its opening game at home to UC Davis. And for much of the contest, the Aggies appeared poised to upend Randy Bennett’s Gaels (8-1), building leads of as many as eight points in the first half and seven points in the second half.
Utah State also held a 56-53 advantage with just under three minutes remaining, but the Gaels were able to execute a little bit better down the stretch while also benefitting from several questionable calls. Most notable was a play with the score tied at 58-58 and a couple of seconds left when Bean attacked the basket and appeared to receive contact, but no foul was called on the Gaels. However, Bean was called for a foul as he went after the loose ball, setting up Ducas’ game-winning free throws.
“It was a heartbreaking way to end it. I was going up for the rebound, and I thought I had ball first,” said Bean, who led all scorers and rebounders with 19 points and 10 boards. “I didn’t think I fouled the guy, but you can’t change that. That’s just basketball.
“There were things that we could have controlled down the stretch that we didn’t execute, and that ended up costing us the game. ... We just didn’t guard how we wanted to that second half and it cost us,” Bean continued. “They had some big plays down the stretch, and you can say what you want about the refs, obviously there’s going be a lot of chatter about that next couple days, but at the end of the day they won the game.“
The Gaels were absolutely dismal offensively in the first half, shooting just 25.9% and going 0 for 12 from 3-point range. But the Aggies had their woes, as well, and led only 20-16 at intermission after shooting just 37.5% themselves.
The game changed abruptly early in the second half when Saint Mary’s knocked down six of its first seven shot attempts, including three 3-pointers in an 80-second span to go from three points down to a 32-29 lead.
“Our defense was pretty good. Maybe we could have had a bigger lead going into halftime had we played a little bit better offensively,” Odom noted. “We begin to figure it out in the second half, but so did they. We talked at halftime about the open-3 opportunities that they had in the first half. And that they weren’t going to continue to miss those, so we’d have to guard them better in the second half.
“And they had a little stretch there were the wrong shooters got loose on us, and they took the lead there.”
There ended up being nine lead changes and seven ties in the final 16 minutes of the game, with the Aggies hanging on despite shooting just under 38 percent in the second half and connecting on a mere 3 of 15 3-point attempts for the game.
Utah State’s 58 total points were a season-low, and the Aggies lost the rebounding battle, 33-31, the first time USU has been beaten on the boards in its last 47 games despite playing in front of it’s largest and loudest crowd since the end of the 2020-21 season.
“It was a great, great atmosphere ... I can’t say enough great things about the fans, they really came through,” Bean said. “The biggest thing is you want to win for them. You want to win those close games, those hard-fought games with those kinds of atmospheres because they deserve it. And that’s probably the most heartbreaking thing about this loss for me was just not being able to deliver for them.”
Bean’s double-double was his seventh in eight games this season, while junior guard Steven Ashworth (12 points) was the only other Aggie to score in double figures. Senior guard Tommy Kushe (13 points) led the Gaels in scoring, but after being held scoreless the first 30 minutes of the game, Saint Mary’s leading scorer Dan Fotu finally broke out to contribute eight big points down the stretch.
“First half, I don’t know if we’ve ever shot it so poorly, 0-12 has to be one of our worst shooting halves,” said SMC assistant coach Mickey McConnell. “For them to come out in that second half, I think we shot 65 percent, we hit seven threes, made our free throws. And still on the defensive end, we held them under 40 percent. In the second half, our guys were awesome.”
After the game, Odom asked about the awkward post-game handshake exchange between he and Bennett, most of which was caught on CBS Sports Network’s television broadcast. Bennett appeared upset about something as he shook the hands of Odom’s assistant coaches, then had something to share with Odom.
“We did shake hands; we definitely shook hands,” Odom clarified. “Initially we were holding hands, and we were chatting there for a second. But I’m not going to get into the details of what we were talking about. It’s part of the game.
”We have a tremendous amount of respect for Saint Mary’s and for Coach Bennett. He’s a longtime coach and has been a great coach for a long time ... but it was just the guts of the game. Things happen. And it is what it is. He didn’t do anything wrong.
“It’s just part of the ending there,” Odom added. “And none of us liked the ending from an Aggie perspective.”