PROVO — The Aggies and Cougars did not disappoint.
In BYU's 78-72 win over Utah State in the Marriott Center, the battle took on a look of something you'd expect in midseason drama. It was intense, hard-fought, nobody backed down or coasted and with two minutes to play, it could have gone either way.
"It's November, but it felt like February," said BYU guard Jackson Emery.
The Cougars won this time, but BYU's players left the court knowing they'd been through a knife fight with USU, although it was just Game 2 of the season. To a man, BYU players sung the praises of the Aggies.
"They run their system very well and are very well coached," said Emery. "Utah State is very efficient with their offense and their team plays together very well. They might not be the most athletic team around but they make up for it in the way they play together."
The game showed off the strengths and weaknesses for both teams and both have plenty to work on. If it wasn't for Jimmer Fredette early and late, and his bushel of 26 points, USU's best inside man fouling out, BYU grabbing huge rebounds and making clutch free throws down the wire? Well, the No. 23-ranked Cougars could have been toast.
"You knew they'd just keep coming at us," said Fredette.
BYU made only one of its last 11 shots but converted 9 of 9 free throws in the final minutes — the difference in the game.
Noah Hartsock (5-of-5) and Charles Abouo (6-6) joined Chris Collinsworth (5-6) and Fredette (5-6) as BYU's most impressive charity-line shooters — most of them in the second half when BYU converted 13 of 15. USU was 7 of 13 in that span.
The Aggies showed a superior inside attack with Tai Wesley and it exposed BYU's inside defense without Chris Miles. USU outshot the Cougars from beyond the arc with an impressive 7 of 11, for 63 percent, thanks to the WAC's leading bomber, Brian Green, who went 6 for 7.
USU outshot BYU 48-38 percent. For a weakness, the Aggies made just 15 of 26 free throws as the Cougars canned 23 of 30 including perfection at the end.
The Cougars shot just 38 percent from the field but had 9 more attempts and outrebounded the Aggies 40-37.
"They outrebounded us and that really was the difference, that and we didn't make free throws," said Wesley.
In an interesting side note, BYU's Stephen Rogers, recruited by both Dave Rose and Stew Morrill, only played eight minutes but he had six rebounds — by far the most productive player on the court per minutes played.
Fredette, who lost the ball several times, once out of bounds without much pressure, made 8 of 21 from the field, 5 of 14 from beyond the arc. USU doubled up on Fredette constantly and BYU struggled to make the Aggies pay.
"This was a fun game to be a part of this early," said Fredette.
It was a drive by Fredette in the final three minutes that put the Cougars up 72-69 to set up BYU gaining control down the stretch. Fighting off an Aggie double team, he got past Tyler Newbold and headed for the key for a nifty backhanded flip shot over Brady Jardine.
"They were blitzing the screens and I tried to run past their big guys as fast as I could and then tried to flip it over their big guys like I've done before," said Fredette.
It was BYU's only field goal in 11 tries to end the game.
A minute later came the play of the game for both teams.
Wesley fouled out after grabbing a rebound. Officials said he intentionally raised his elbows toward Chris Collinsworth. The intentional whistle put Collinsworth at the line and he buried both for a 74-69 BYU advantage.
Wesley had made an impressive 9 of 11 shots, mostly inside the key, an area MWC foes SDSU and UNLV will surely exploit after the new year in league play.
"It was huge because Chris made the free throws and Wesley was out of the game and he was their best offense inside," said Hartsock, who had a pair of critical offensive rebounds in the final five minutes.
Collinsworth said Wesley's elbow didn't hit him but he felt it go by and it was just hard competitive play.
Wesley, who said officials warned the captains about a new rule that emphasizes a prevention of raised elbows, said he was trying to protect the ball "and my instincts just took over."
BYU's inside defense, which did not effectively stop Wesley (19 points) all night, did without sophomore center Brandon Davies, who was held out of the game in favor of Hartsock, Chris Collinsworth and James Anderson in the post.
This is a series that needs to keep a stage with all this conference switching around and BYU's march to independence.
Morrill versus Rose.
These guys do put on a show.