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Utah State basketball clamps down in second half to fend off pesky Northern Colorado

Northern Colorado forward Kur Jockuch (15) fights for a rebound against Utah State center Neemias Queta (23) and guard Brock Miller (22) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, in Logan, Utah.
Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal/Associated Press

LOGAN — Just when it looked like Utah State might in trouble Friday night at the Spectrum, the Aggies managed to bear down against Northern Colorado Bears.

“That was exciting to see how we were able to just surge down the stretch and put the game away,” USU head coach Craig Smith said following the Aggies’ 63-50 win over the UNC from the Big Sky Conference.

The Aggies (3-3) trailed by four points early in the second half, and the home team was up just 47-44 before going on a tear that saw USU outscore the Bears (3-2) by a 16-2 margin over the next seven minutes.

“We made a big push there in the second half, played stronger at the rim and were able to close out the deal,” Smith said.

Utah State junior guard Marco Anthony led all the scorers with 19 points on 7 of 20 shooting, while junior forward Justin Bean racked up 12 points and 11 rebounds. Freshman guard Rollie Worster added 12 points, as well, while junior center Neemias Queta put together an interesting line during his 24 minutes: six points, seven rebounds, three assists, four fouls and five turnovers.

The Aggies shot 41.9% from the field for the game, while going 3 for 8 from 3-point range and outrebounding the Bears 40-30. Northern Colorado shot 39.6% as a team, including just 6 of 23 from 3-point range.

“Overall, we just got back to playing our game, especially on the defensive end,” Bean said. “It’s no secret that the last couple of years in the Mountain West, San Diego State and us have been the two best teams defensively. It’s shown in how we play. Today I thought we did a really good job knowing their personnel.

“They were coming off a few games, and they’d been in in a rhythm this last week and we hadn’t played in 10 days. It was big for us to lock in to our scout. We had a few great practices this week. I’m really proud of our guys of how we accepted the challenge on short notice and beat a really good Northern Colorado team.”

The game was the first for the Aggies since a win over the College of Idaho on Dec. 8, and it was also the first home game of the season coached by Smith. The third-year coach tested positive for COVID-19 a couple days prior to the BYU game on Dec. 5, forcing him to miss the games against the Cougars and the Coyotes. But due to additional cases on the team, the Aggies were forced to cancel a game at Weber State on Dec. 12 and a home contest vs. Dixie State on Dec. 15.

In an effort to get a game in before starting Mountain West play next week against San Jose State, USU managed to solidify Friday’s contest against Northern Colorado just three days prior to tipoff. But due to more coronavirus issues, assistant coach Eric Peterson, who took the reins of the team during Smith’s absence, wasn’t on Utah State’s sideline Friday night, and neither were fellow assistants David Ragland and Justin Johnson.

“We were short a few staff members; I won’t get into specifics, but they’re not suspended from the team, I promise you,” Smith cracked. “But I’m sure you can put two and two together.

“It is a different feel. I’ve been a small-school guy, so I know the feeling of looking down the bench and seeing just one other guy.”

Smith last coached the Aggies in a game against Northern Iowa on Nov. 27, and he said prior to Wednesday’s practice that he hadn’t even been in the Spectrum since Nov. 23.

But there appeared to be no rust surrounding him or his team early on, as the Aggies knocked down six of it’s first seven shots to open the game and take a quick 13-4 lead. But the home team would only make six more shots the rest of the half — on 24 field-goal attempts — and would have trailed at halftime had Anthony not knocked for a 3-pointer six second before intermission.

Utah State’s 28-27 lead disappeared quickly in the second half, however, as the Aggies fell behind by as many as four points early on. But thanks to throwing some full-count pressure at the Bears four about five minutes, they were able to turn things around and regain the lead.

But still, USU was up just 49-44 when Northern Colorado’s Daylen Kountz appeared to bury a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired with 8:36 left in the game. The officials reviewed the play, however, and eventually waved off Kountz’s trey. So instead of pulling to within two points of their hosts, the Bears were still down by five, and the Aggies ended up scoring 14 of the next 16 points.

“That was a big play, and right after that we went on that big run,” Smith said. “Obviously I haven’t seen the replay, but I thought he was just a fraction late when he shot it.”

Kountz still ended up scoring a team-high 13 points, while Kur Jockuch and Bodie Hume added 11 and 10 points, respectively. Hume, the Bears’ leading scorer at 19.3 points per game, made 4 of 10 shots while playing a game-high 38 minutes.

“We have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Smith and for his program. This is one of the best programs in the country,” UNC head coach Steve Smiley said. “When both of our programs had games lost and we had the opportunity to try and find a game talking to Coach Smith we both said ‘let’s do it.’

“We’re really thankful that we got a chance to come up here and compete because when you play great teams and you play really well-coached teams, you learn a lot about yourself.”