I knew how good they are. And they always seem to play well here in this building. They play with a lot of poise, and that's what they did tonight. —USU head coach Tim Duryea
LOGAN — The Aggies had San Diego State where they wanted them for 143 seconds.
But the rest of the game belonged to a feisty, hard-nosed Aztec team, which pulled out a 66-62 victory Wednesday night at the Spectrum.
"I knew how good they are," USU head coach Tim Duryea said of an SDSU team that was the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West Conference. "And they always seem to play well here in this building. They play with a lot of poise, and that's what they did tonight."
Down by as many as 11 points in the first half and 32-29 at halftime, the Aggies (5-9 in the Mountain West, 11-14 overall) battled back to take a 37-35 lead on two free throws by Sam Merrill with 16:15 to go. Unfortunately for the crowd of 6,427, that would be USU's only advantage of the night as the Aggies failed to score on their next three possessions before a 3-pointer by Max Hoetzel put San Diego State (7-6, 15-10) back out in front.
Sparked by the backcourt combo of junior Trey Kell and sophomore Jeremy Hemsley, the Aztecs ended up pulling away by as many as 13 points before Utah State managed to put together a late run. The Aggies got to with three points on a 3-point play by Merrill with 10 seconds to go, but Hemsley made one of two free-throw attempts with 8.8 seconds to go to seal the victory for the visitors.
"It was a tough loss," USU senior forward Jalen Moore said. "We played tough, but they went on a little run there in the second half and we weren't able to come back from that. They hit some big shots, and we didn't."
Moore went 8 of 15 from the field on his way to a team-high 20 points, while USU's freshman guards, Merrill (4 for 10, 12 points) and Koby McEwen (3 for 13, 13 points) battled through sub-par shooting nights to also reach double figures in scoring.
The Aggies, who shot 50 percent from the field in the first half against the best defensive team in the Mountain West, slipped to 36.7 percent in the second half and 42.3 percent for the game. Utah State, which is now 0-9 against San Diego State since joining the Mountain West, outrebounded SDSU 36 to 33, but committed 15 turnovers, and went just 6 for 20 from 3-point range and 12 of 19 from the free-throw line.
Kell led the Aztecs with 21 points and seven rebounds, while Hemsley finished with 13 points. They were the only players to reach double digits in scoring for San Diego State, which shot 41.1 percent from the floor as a team.
"Defensively, for the most part, I thought we did a pretty good job," Merrill said. "We just had some stretches that weren't so great. I think this game was lost on the offensive end. We had 15 turnovers and didn't shoot the ball very well.
"Credit to San Diego State. That's a good team that plays pressure basketball, and we obviously didn't do our job tonight."
Practically nothing went right for the Aggies early in the contest as the Aztecs' defense clamped down, forcing the home team into numerous turnovers with their pressure defense. But after staking San Diego State to a 20-9 advantage, the Aggies finally started to show signs of life. After relying solely on Moore, who scored USU's first seven points, Utah State got a couple of free throws from Julion Pearre, a 3-pointer by Merrill and a layup from Quinn Taylor to quickly cut SDSU's lead to just four points with under eight minutes left in the half.
Another 8-2 burst by the Aggies highlighted by a 3-pointer by Moore cut the Aztecs advantage to 29-28 with 1:11 to go, but Hemsley dropped in a trey moments later to give SDSU a little more breathing room. Hemsley, who hadn't scored up until that point, ended up fouling McEwen on a 3-point attempt with under a second remaining.
McEwen would make just one of his three free-throw attempts, leaving him with just one point for the half and the Aggies down 32-29 at intermission.
In the second half, Utah State held the lead just once, but a spectacular transition dunk by Moore resulted in a 3-point play that tied the game at 42-42 and brought the house down. Unfortunately for the Aggies, they weren't able to capitalize on the energy provided by Moore's throwdown.
"It always feels good to take a lead in a close game," Moore noted. "It was a back-and-forth game. Both teams played hard. We played well in parts, but we struggled in some areas and that's pretty much what hurt us and lost the game for us."