We just stayed with it. Our defense kept us in the game. —Utah State's Jarred Shaw
LOGAN — Utah State head coach Stew Morrill has been preaching the importance of defense to his team since camp opened back in October. On Wednesday night, the Aggies (12-4, 2-2 Mountain West) produced one of their best defensive efforts of the season in a 57-50 win over Colorado State (11-7, 2-3) in front of 9,766 fans at the Spectrum.
“It was a good, old-fashioned slugfest,” Morrill said after the game. “It was a hard-fought, physical basketball game.”
Both squads looked uncomfortable with the physicality of the game early on, combining for just 20 points in the contest's first 12 minutes. The Aggie offense didn't find its feet until late in the first half when TeNale Roland and Preston Medlin hit 3s on back-to-back plays to tie the game at 15.
Utah State then broke out of an early funk to hit its final five shot attempts and seven of its final eight to take a 27-22 lead into the half. Jarred Shaw scored eight straight Aggie points going into the half to give the Aggies the momentum.
“We just stayed with it,” Shaw said. “Our defense kept us in the game.”
Shaw finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds, his third double-double of the season.
Colorado State’s J.J. Avila and Daniel Bejarano combined to score 41 of the Rams' 50 points, as the Aggie defense kept the rest of CSU's players off-balance all night. Utah State had a season-high seven steals and tied a season high with 14 forced turnovers, almost double the 7.9 Colorado State came into the game averaging.
“I feel pretty good about it,” Morrill said of his defense. “(Colorado State) had a hard time scoring. Their percentages were down. We did a pretty good job.”
While the defense kept Utah State in the game, it was Spencer Butterfield who led the Aggies through the second half offensively. Each time the Rams got close in the second half, Butterfield seemed to find an answer to stop the bleeding.
With just more than 10 minutes remaining, Butterfield drilled a 3 from the top of the key to push USU's lead up to 40-33. A few minutes later, after back-to-back treys from Bejarano, Butterfield knocked down another long-distance shot to push the lead back to seven again. For an encore Medlin found Butterfield in the corner after an offensive rebound for a rare four-point play as Butterfield was fouled knocking down the 3-pointer and made the free throw to give the Aggies a 54-44 lead. The sequence effectively sealed the game.
“My favorite was the one in the corner with the and-one, because the bench was there and was able to pick me back up. That was a cool feeling,” Butterfield said.
Butterfield scored 14 of his 17 points after the break. Preston Medlin scored 12 points and had eight assists to round out the Aggies in double figures.
The Aggies now move on to the toughest part of their Mountain West schedule, playing the top four teams in the MWC preseason poll over the next two weeks, starting with a road trip to Boise State on Saturday night.
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.