LOGAN — While Brigham Young and Utah State played in a very different environment Saturday night than seen in the previous 236 meetings between the two in-state rivals, the outcome — and even nearly the final score — were the same as last year.

After letting an 11-point lead with 10:32 slip away, the Cougars made enough plays in the final moments of USU’s home opener to pull out a 67-64 victory at the Spectrum.

“These in-state games are tough, but I’m so proud of these guys for the way we pulled it out,” said BYU guard Alex Barcello said after BYU’s ninth straight victory over Utah State. 

Barcello, who hit the game-sealing 3-pointer in BYU’s 68-64 win over the Aggies a year ago at Vivint Arena, led the Cougars (5-1) with 23 points in 34 minutes. The junior went 6 for 8 from the field, 2 of 3 from 3-point range and 9 of 11 from the free-throw line while scoring at least 19 points for the fourth time in BYU’s first five games of the season.

Freshman forward Caleb Lohner (11 points, six rebounds) was the only other Cougar to score in double digits for BYU, which shot an even 40% as a team, including 8 of 22 from 3-point range and 15 of 19 from the free-throw line.

Saturday’s game was technically a sellout, but due to pandemic-related restrictions, there were only 1,628 fans at the Spectrum. They were a welcome sight for BYU head coach Mark Pope, however, who has been coaching in empty arenas thus far this season. 

“I don’t know about safety issues or whatever, but to have some fans in this building was like heaven,” Pope said. “It was so fantastic ... and these fans don’t even like us. It was just fun to have people in the gym, so that was really special, too.”

With USU head coach Craig Smith sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, longtime assistant coach Eric Peterson stepped into Smith’s role and nearly guided the Aggies to their first win over Brigham Young since 2011.

But while Utah State managed to tie the score three times in the final 5:15, the Aggies were never quite able to get over the top and freshman guard Rollie Worster’s game-tying attempt with three seconds left came up short. 

“Every time you come to Logan, it is an adventure beyond adventures,” Pope said. “The outcome is always 100% uncertain unless they end up running you out of the gym. 

“But what an unbelievable performance by their team,” Pope continued. “It’s a credit to Craig that his team can function so incredibly well without him in the building, and it’s a credit to Eric that he can just pick up the mantle and execute really well and have his team hang in there and play well.”

Neemias Queta led the Aggies in scoring with 18 points and added eight rebounds, but the junior center ended up just 7 of 18 from the floor and 4 of 9 from free-throw line. Junior guard Marco Anthony added 17 points, Worster finished with 15 and junior forward Justin Bean pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds. 

For the game, Utah State won the rebounding battle 42 to 35, but the home team shot only 35.6% and knocked down just 2 of 13 3-point attempts. 

“I’m really proud of our second-half effort. I thought our guys really fought,” Peterson said. “We held them to 305 from the floor in the second half and 33% from 3. At the end of the day, our first half just wasn’t good enough.”

While the Aggies led by as many as six points in the first five minutes of the game, USU suddenly went cold from the floor while Barcello and a handful of his teammates heated up, putting together a 15-8 run that gave Brigham Young its first lead of the night at 21-20. Behind Barcello, who made all four of his shots and scored 12 points in the opening half, the Cougars took a 39-29 lead into halftime. 

Utah State was unable to get any closer than four points until BYU’s hot shooting cooled down considerably and the home team managed to chip away at its deficit, primarily with free throws. A 12-foot baseline jumper by Worster pulled the Aggies even at 58-58 with 5:15 to go, and after a couple of free throws by Barcello, Anthony tied the game again at 60-60 with a driving layup.

After that, scoring became extremely difficult to come by over the final four-plus minutes, with Anthony missing a pair of free throws and teammates Worster and Sean Bairstow misfiring on wide-open 3-point attempts during one crucial stretch for the Aggies. 

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A 3-pointer by BYU forward Connor Harding with 57 seconds left ended up being a game-changer, staking the Cougars to a 64-61 lead that they would never surrender. The shot was made possible by a tough rebound by Lohner, who managed to fire off a pass to Harding in the corner as he was about to fall out of bounds along the baseline. 

“What a great shot to seal the deal by Connor in the corner,” said Barcello, comparing it the shot he made against the Aggies in 2019. “Once the ball it left his hands — it kind of reminded me a little bit of last year — I knew that ball was in, and that we just needed a stop to seal the win.”

There were still some wild moments in the final minute, especially when Aggie fans thought Worster had managed to toss in a off-balance shot while being fouled. But the shot was waved off by the referee, and Worster made just one of his free throws to leave USU down 65-64. Then with just under 10 seconds to go, Harding fired off a long inbounds pass to Barcello all the way down the court, and the Arizona transfer managed to control it just enough without traveling and without going out of bounds, leading to him knocking down two free throws for the final score.

“It’s what was drawn up in the timeout, but obviously if I didn’t have an open catch, we were going to get it (Brandon Averette) or one of the two guys rushing up,” Barcello said. “But I give all the credit to Connor on that throw man. Holy cow, what an unbelievable pass.”

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