Utah State hosted a rare Sunday game at the Spectrum and thanks to a fire-and-brimstone sermon by USU head coach Craig Smith during an early timeout in the second half, the Aggies made certain Nevada didn’t have a prayer of pulling off a victory.
“We called a quick timeout in the second half; I just thought we weren’t doing what we needed to on either side of the ball,” Smith said following Utah State’s 87-66 victory. “Credit to our guys who really responded and worked hard, playing relentless that way.”
In the first game against the Wolf Pack on Friday, the Aggies (16-7 overall, 13-4 in the Mountain West) also held a 16-point lead at halftime and led by as many as 21 points in the second half before Nevada rallied back to make the home team sweat out a 75-72 victory.
“When you play four games in 31 days, it’s hard to maintain continuity and rhythm. It also felt like we were showing signs we were going to play really well, where it was really starting to click. I thought we saw that tonight, where things were clicking on all cylinders.” — USU coach Craig Smith
Utah State went into the locker room up 39-23 on Sunday, but after surrendering seven of the first 10 points of the second half, a very agitated Smith called timeout with 17:02 to go. Whatever he told his team certainly paid dividends as the Aggies went on a 22-9 run that made certain there wasn’t a repeat of Friday night.
“Coming out we had to just really lock in on defense, at halftime we were talking about it,” USU forward Alphonso Anderson said. “We did the same thing last game when they made a run, but those first five minutes, you either give them life or you take it away. ... Coach got on us a little bit, but as expected. We hadn’t been playing the way we should have been playing. And after that timeout, I think we really got it together offensively and defensively.”
Sunday’s game served as Senior Night for Anderson, who started his second straight game and put up 12 points in 24 minutes. Utah State’s other starting big men, Neemias Queta and Justin Bean, both totaled double-doubles for the second straight game.
Queta finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds six assists and zero turnovers, while Bean racked up 17 points, 13 rebounds and four assists. A 63.2 percent free-throw shooter coming into the weekend, Queta went 8 of 9 from the line on Sunday and 18 of 23 in the two games overall.
“I’ve been working a lot on my free-throw shooting lately,” Queta said. “I just feel a lot more confident every time I got to the line, just being able to breathe and relax and just shooting it, instead of just throwing it.”
Junior guard Marco Anthony added 11 points for the Aggies while helping hold Nevada’s leading scorer, Grand Sherfield, to just two field goals and six points on the defensive end. Sherfield, who was averaging nearly 19 points a game coming into the series, was just 6 of 21 in the two games at the Spectrum.
“Our screen-and-roll defense was excellent and that’s a big thing,” Smith noted. “Grant Sherfield is such a dynamic player, there’s a lot of talk he could be the conference player of the year, he’s really good. Marco Anthony did a great job, as did everyone with our screen-roll coverages to make it difficult on him.”
The Aggies crushed Nevada (14-9, 9-7) on Sunday despite being outshot by the Wolf Pack, 47.1 percent to 42.6 percent. But Utah State, which went only 4 of 22 from 3-point range, did every thing else well, outrebounding Nevada, 47-24, forcing the Pack in 19 turnovers and knocking down 25 of 27 free throws. The Aggies also hit the floor all night, coming up with far more loose balls than their visitors, with a diving snag-and-flip save by Bean while going out of bounds being the highlight.
“We made a lot of tough-guy plays, and I think tonight we eliminated losing,” Smith said. “... We didn’t shoot it great, but I think part of why we didn’t shoot it great is because we shot some threes when we didn’t need to. We didn’t let it really develop, and we took some out-of-rhythm ones. But we made a lot of hustle plays, got our hands on a lot of balls and forced them into 19 turnovers. And I just thought we were really active.”
Nevada, which trailed by as many as 26 points in the second half, had won four straight games coming into its games against the Aggies. But the Pack also hadn’t played for two weeks due to COVID-19 issues. Nevada was definitely the better team in the second half of Friday’s contest, but other than that, the Aggies clearly the stronger and deeper squad.
“Tough one for us,” Nevada head coach Steve Alford said. “I never thought we really got going. We got absolutely destroyed on the glass and in transition. I thought those were the two biggest keys in this game, and we just did a really bad job in transition. Utah State is a big team, a strong team, and we didn’t handle that very well today.”
Nevada had five players finish in double figures, led by junior guard Desmond Cambridge, who scored a team-high 13 points despite going just 4 of 15 from the field and 1 for 6 from 3-point range.
Utah State welcomed back Rollie Worster, who hadn’t seen action in game since Jan. 27, due to a lower leg injury. Although the freshman guard ran into a little foul trouble, he knocked down a 3-pointer and added three rebounds and two assists while playing 14 minutes.
Junior guard Brock Miller, who battled back issues in Friday’s game, started on Sunday, but was clearly still hampered by the injury and ended of going 0 for 7 from the floor while logging 17 minutes. However, freshman guard Max Shulga gave the Aggies’ backcourt a lift coming off the bench for the second straight game, making some spectacular passes and hustle plays while notching five points, eight rebounds and four steals in 24 minutes.
“When you play four games in 31 days, it’s hard to maintain continuity and rhythm,” Smith noted. “It also felt like we were showing signs we were going to play really well, where it was really starting to click. I thought we saw that tonight, where things were clicking on all cylinders. You bring in Worster, that really helps. Then you see Shulga getting better game-by-game as he gets more experience.
“Great team win, great balance. Great team effort and an excellent win, and it felt good to be at home.”
The Nevada-Utah State contest was the only game on the Mountain West schedule on Sunday, and the win left the Aggies in third place in the conference standings behind San Diego State (19-4, 13-3) and Colorado State (15-4, 12-3), and just ahead of Boise State (18-6, 14-5).
While Sunday’s game was the last one on USU’s regular season schedule, the Aggies will host Wyoming (12-9, 6-8) Thursday night and then travel back to Fresno State (10-10, 8-10) Saturday to make up two of the three games that were postponed due to COVID-19 issues. The Mountain West Conference tournament will be held March 10-13 in Las Vegas without fans in the stands.