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Utah State’s 10th straight win — and second over San Diego State — shows off Aggies’ resilience

SHARE Utah State’s 10th straight win — and second over San Diego State — shows off Aggies’ resilience
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Utah State guard Steven Ashworth (3) celebrates after the San Diego State bench was called for a technical foul during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Logan, Utah.

Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP, Pool

LOGAN — Judging by the way he sprinted up the tunnel throwing fist-pumps in the air as he left the floor of the Spectrum, Utah State head coach Craig Smith was a little more excited than normal that his Aggies were able to pull off a second-straight victory against San Diego State Saturday afternoon and move into a tie for first place in the Mountain West standings.

“That was actually only third gear out of four,” Smith clarified following’s USU’s 64-59 win. “But San Diego State is very good, and they’re just so tough and physical. And we had nothing going right the last seven or eight minutes of the first half. Nothing went right. Nothing.

“I didn’t think our effort is what it takes to beat a team like that, consistently,” Smith added, “So, I was just so proud of how they responded after halftime because to be able to do what we did and then be able to hold on, I’m just really proud of our guys.”

After beating San Diego State 57-45 on Thursday night, the Aggies (11-3 overall, 8-0 in the Mountain West) had to turn around less than 36 hours later and face last year’s regular-season conference champs once again. And despite playing without leading scorer Matt Mitchell, who suffered a knee injury late in Thursday’s game, the Aztecs (9-4, 3-3) still carried a 10-point lead into halftime in the rematch. 

But following what was clearly a spirited halftime speech from Smith, the Aggies opened up the second half with a 12-2 run that erased SDSU’s advantage in less than four minutes. The two rivals then battled back and forth the rest of the way, with Utah State managing to hold onto a small lead down the stretch thanks to made free throws and strong play from bench players Steve Ashworth (a game-high 17 points) and Alphonso Anderson (nine points, seven rebounds).

The manner in which the Aggies gutted out their third straight win against one of the top basketball programs in the western United States left Smith quite emotional. 

“Everybody stayed together. The bench was way more active in the second half — I’m not sure they had a lot to be excited about in the first half — but the point is, everybody affects winning. And I think we saw that in the last 20 minutes of the game where everybody put their best foot forward and somehow found a way to win.” — Utah State coach Craig Smith

“Everybody stayed together,” Smith declared. “The bench was way more active in the second half — I’m not sure they had a lot to be excited about in the first half — but the point is, everybody affects winning. And I think we saw that in the last 20 minutes of the game where everybody put their best foot forward and somehow found a way to win.”

The Aggies’ 10th straight victory moved Utah State into a tie for first place in the conference standings with Boise State (12-1, 8-0). The Broncos, who have won 12 straight games, were idle this weekend. Utah State will host two games against third-place Colorado State (9-2, 6-1) on Tuesday and Thursday nights. 

Playing in a game that featured a rare Saturday morning tipoff at 11:30 a.m. MST, the Aggies managed to defeat the Aztecs — winners of a nation-best 13 straight road games prior to Thursday — once again despite shooting just 37.3% as a team. 

One of the major differences was that after shooting only two free throws in the first game courtesy of a technical foul on SDSU head coach Brian Dutcher, Utah State went 17 of 25 from the line on Saturday. Most notably, Ashworth (8-for-8) and Anderson (5-for-6) shot 14 free throws in the second half after not going to the line at all in the first half. 

“They shot two free throws in the first game and 25 today,” Dutcher noted. “That’s a credit to them, finding a way to get to the foul line.”

After committing 12 turnovers in the first half, the Aggies ended up with just 16 for the game and won the rebounding battle, 39-32. 

In addition to Ashworth, who went 3-for-6 from 3-point range, Utah State got three 3-pointers and 11 points from junior guard Brock Miller. Neemias Queta fouled out of the game with 2:27 left, but the junior center still managed to put up 10 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks, four assists and five turnovers in 29 minutes. 

On the play Queta fouled out on, SDSU guard Lamont Butler completed a three-point play to pull the Aztecs to within 57-56. And while USU didn’t notch another field goal the rest of the game, the Aggies did knock down 7 of 8 free throws down the stretch to keep San Diego State at bay.

“I think that was the definition of a team win, a lot of guys stepping up, a lot of guys making plays,” said Ashworth, a Lone Peak High product playing in his first season with the Aggies following a mission. “The first half wasn’t the first half we anticipated or hoped for, but we came back in the second half with a pretty good response. The crowd really got behind us, it’s always great to be in the Spectrum.”

Playing in front of a pandemic sellout of 1,638 fans at the Spectrum, the Aggies did benefit from having some crowd noise on their side, leading Smith to encourage his team to make a lap around the court afterwards to acknowledge the fan support. 

“It felt like that really helped,” Smith said of the small but spirited crowd. “One of our young guys said, “‘Wow coach, that was amazing!’ And it was amazing. And I said, just imagine what it’s like when there’s 12,000 people in the Spectrum. There’s not many places better than that.”

After leading 14-6 early in the game, Utah State went historically cold offensively, and the Aggies were outscored 26-8 the rest of the first half. But the home team all but cut out its turnovers in the second half, and ended up surviving six ties and five lead changes in the second half. 

In Mitchell’s absence, San Diego State’s bench stepped up, totaling 36 points, primarily thanks to senior Terrell Gomez (16 points) and Butler (13 points). Senior guard Jordan Schakel was the only SDSU starter to reach double figures in scoring with 11 points.

In a second straight matchup of the top two defensive teams in the Mountain West, the Aztecs did outshoot the Aggies (41.1%), while going 6-for-19 from 3-point range and 7-for-15 from the free-throw line.

“It’s a disappointing loss,” Dutcher said. “With that being said, I like the toughness and grit of this team. Without Matt Mitchell we came out and fought hard one day. We adjusted our attitude offensively, where we wanted to play downhill and attack more, not be so cautious. I think we did that.”