After gambling with their postseason future in the first half of Thursday night’s game against UNLV, the Aggies came up with blackjack in the second half and cruised to a 21-point victory in their opening game of the Mountain West Conference Tournament in Las Vegas.
“It was a bit of a slow start, kind of a root canal for both teams on the offensive end,” USU head coach Craig Smith said following Utah State’s 74-53 rout of the Rebels. “… But our guys did a great job of self-correcting and really played connected in the second half. We cleaned up on the offensive end.”
Down 24-18 late in the first half, the Aggies (19-7) battled back to tie the score at 24-24 at halftime. The tournament’s No. 2 seed then simply added to that momentum in the second half, as the Utah State shot just under 60% over the final 20 minutes to secure its fifth straight victory.
Junior center Neemias Queta (18 points, 13 rebounds) recorded his seventh-straight double-double for USU, while junior guard Marco Anthony (15 points, 13 rebounds, five assists) put together one of his best games as an Aggie. Freshman guard Rollie Worster (14 points, eights, six rebounds) and junior forward Justin Bean (10 points, five rebounds) also scored in double figures.
“It was really balanced attack on both sides of the ball,” Smith said. “We’re happy to win. It’s survive and advance at this time of the year, and we’re looking forward to playing another game tomorrow against Colorado State or Fresno State.”
The Aggies improved to 7-0 in the MW tourney in Smith’s three seasons as head coach and will face No. 3 Colorado State (17-5) Friday at 10 p.m. MST.
“Our guys did a great job of self-correcting and really played connected in the second half. We cleaned up on the offensive end.” — Utah State coach Craig Smith
That game will tipoff Friday at 10 p.m. MST following the first semifinal game between top-seed San Diego State (21-4) and No. 5 Nevada (16-9). The 19th-ranked Aztecs pulled out a 69-66 victory over a very determined Wyoming team Thursday afternoon, while the Wolf Pack beat No. 4 seed Boise State, 89-82, for the third time this season.
For much of the first half, the Aggies certainly figured to be in a similar type of battle with the seventh-seeded Rebels (12-15), who, while playing in their own arena, did not have the luxury of having fans in the stands at the Thomas & Mack Center due to pandemic limitations.
But while Utah State trailed by as many as six points in the first half, the Aggies’ stuck to their defensive ways and never let the Rebels get too far ahead despite knocking down just 9 of 28 field-goal attempts. A 3-pointer by junior guard Brock Miller just 26 seconds into the second half proved to be a good omen for the Aggies, who then got a quick eight points from Anthony via a pair of 3-pointers and a layup.
The transfer from Virginia then added a beautiful baseline pass to Bean for an easy score that lifted USU to a six-point lead.
“We just had to get things going, and when we play connected, that’s when we play at our best,” Anthony said. “It felt like the second half we really started to do that, and it showed on the scoreboard.”
Queta, who had just five points in the first half, then took over in the paint, going 3 for 4 from the floor and 7 of 8 from the free-throw line following intermission. All-in-all, the Aggies went 19 for 34 from the field in the second half, including 4 for 10 from 3-point range, as they pulled away by as many as 23 points.
Conversely, UNLV star guard David Jenkins, who put up 33 points in the last meeting between USU and UNLV, went just 1 for 13 from the field and 0 for 7 from 3-point range on his way to scoring a mere five points in the loss. Anthony certainly had a lot to do with Jenkins’ shooting woes.
“Marco had a heck of a game in every facet,” Smith said. “That’s what he does. … He’s such a dynamic player; he was named to the all-defensive team, and he takes a lot of pride in that. He did a great job on the defensive end again tonight, as did our whole team.”
Jenkins’ backcourt mate, Bryce Hamilton, led UNLV with 16 points, while forward Edoardo Del Cadia (10 points) was the only other Rebel to score in double figures. Nevada-Las Vegas shot 32.2% as a team, including a 6 for 22 effort from 3-point range.
The Aggies, who won the rebounding battle 45-22, were extremely happy to welcome Miller back to the starting lineup after not seeing game action since late February due to a back injury. The junior ended up scoring eight points and knocking down two 3-pointers in 32 minutes.
“You forget Brock Miller hasn’t played for two weeks, and he hasn’t done anything live except for four games in close to a month,” Smith noted. “So, it took him some time to settle in. ...
“Brock really struggled in the first half, and he looked a little out of sorts. But he was able to hit a couple of 3s early (in the second half), and that really opened up the floor for us. Obviously, he’s a big-time weapon and has had a great year.”