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Utah State uses strong second half to beat Wyoming in home finale

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Wyoming guard Hunter Maldonado (24) dribbles the ball as Utah State forward Justin Bean (34) defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP, Pool)

AP

LOGAN — Even though the Utah State Aggies weren’t exactly firing on all cylinders Thursday night at the Spectrum, they still boasted more than enough horsepower in the second half to leave the Wyoming Cowboys in the dust, winning 72-59.

“They threw a little different type of look at us, and I felt like we didn’t do a good job of taking what they were giving us, but I felt like we adjusted and finished the game pretty well,” Aggie center Neemias Queta said. “We did what we had to do to win.”

Queta, who has emerged as a leading candidate for Mountain West Player of the Year honors, notched his fifth straight double-double on Thursday. The junior from Portugal knocked down 7 of 10 field-goal attempts for 14 points while adding 13 rebounds and five blocks in 31 minutes.

Likewise, Queta’s frontcourt mate Justin Bean (21 points, 10 rebounds) compiled his third double-double in row while going 10 for 20 from the floor.

“No, but I think his game has really evolved, and I think it helps us when he shoots,” USU head coach Craig Smith said when asked if he had anticipated Bean ever putting up 20 shot attempts in a game.

“He had a great weekend last weekend, but every game is his own entity, and I think he self-corrected in a great way and just played the way we needed him to play, and the ball just started finding him.”

Freshman guard Steven Ashworth (13 points) was the only other player to score in double figures for the Aggies, who shot 45.5 percent as a team, including a 6 of 20 performance from 3-point range.

Thursday’s game was the final home contest of the season for the Aggies (17-7 overall, 14-4 in the Mountain West), who currently sit in third place in the conference standings between regular-season champion San Diego State (20-4, 14-3) and Colorado State (17-4, 14-3).

Utah State will wrap up the regular season on Saturday with another COVID-related makeup game at Fresno State (11-10, 9-10).

The Bulldogs shocked Boise State 67-64 on Tuesday night, and USU’s win over Wyoming (12-10, 6-9) locked the Broncos (18-7, 14-6) into fourth place and the No. 4 seed in next week’s conference tournament in Las Vegas.

The Aggies can move up to the No. 2 seed with a win at Fresno and a Colorado State loss Friday night at Nevada (14-9, 9-7).

“Our guys really stayed connected. I loved how we played in the second half, holding them to 1 for 14 from 3. We really guarded the ball well and made it difficult on them.” — Utah State head coach Craig Smith

Utah State, which won its first game over the Bulldogs 69-53 on Feb. 4 before a positive test in the Aggies’ traveling party shut down the second contest, might still be without the services of Brock Miller for the rematch. The junior guard didn’t dress for Thursday’s game after being hampered with back issues for last weekend’s series against Nevada.

“We’ll see,” Smith said of Miller, who started USU’s first 23 games. “I don’t know, but it’s probably leaning towards him not being available. We’ll find out in the morning when we see how he’s feeling.”

Miller (49 for 125) leads the Aggies in 3-point shooting this season, and his absence has definitely been noticed of late. Utah State knocked down just 2 of 15 3-point attempts in the first half of Thursday’s game before Ashworth and fellow freshman guard Max Shulga both came off the bench to drain pivotal back-to-back shots in the second half.

“Steven Ashworth gave us a great lift off the bench, and then Shulga — give Max a lot of credit, he wasn’t great in the first half, but he was able to figure some things out,” Smith said. “For a freshman who hasn’t played a lot of minutes to stay confident like that, you have to give him a lot of credit.”

With Wyoming basically daring USU to shoot from outside in the first half — particularly Bean — while collapsing defensively on Queta in the post, the Cowboys were able to build a seven-point lead at one point. But the game was also tied six times, the Aggies led by as many as six points and went into the locker room up 38-35.

But Utah State adjusted in the second half, sometimes throwing four guards at the Cowboys, mixing in a little full-court press and getting the ball to down low to Queta and Bean with regularity. Shulga’s twin treys around the 10-minute mark helped spark a 22-9 burst by the home team that stretched the Aggies’ lead to as many as 18 points in the final three minutes.

“Our guys really stayed connected,” Smith said. “I loved how we played in the second half, holding them to 1 for 14 from 3. We really guarded the ball well and made it difficult on them.”

Wyoming made just eight buckets in the second half and shot 37.5 percent for the game after knocking down 8 of 17 3-point attempts in the first half. Utah State won the rebounding battle 42-33 and turned the ball over just nine times.

Junior guard Hunter Maldonado led the Cowboys with 14 points, while freshman guard Xavier DuSell added 12 points and junior forward Hunter Thompson finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds.