When the world last looked in on the Aggies - sometime in the wee hours Tuesday morning on ESPN - they were getting reamed by UNLV. Later Tuesday, in the waning minutes of their wake-'em-up-again practice, leading scorer Jay Goodman went down with a bad sprain of his good ankle.
Now it's Thursday night in the Spectrum. Hardly anybody (5,344) is there. Utah State has lost three straight. In those three games, the Aggies have committed 67 total turnovers, and now their flashiest ballhandler is out with two ankle sprains. The opponent is Cal-Fullerton, which beat Utah State by two in a fast-paced game in Orange County Jan. 7.Fullerton gets the tip.
The Aggies hunker down defensively.
And Fullerton stuns just about everyone with a bona fide slowdown game, holding the ball near the center line until the shot clock's about wound itself out.
"They wanted to run," asserted Aggie Kendall Youngblood after talking during the game to the Titan players, "but their coach wanted something else."
The tactic was partially successful, setting the Aggies back on their heels, but they recovered quickly enough and hauled off a 74-63 Big West Conference win that pushed the Blue Crew to 5-5 in the league - not bad considering they've played UNLV twice and New Mexico State, Long Beach and Fullerton on the road.
"It was a `must' home win," said USU Coach Kohn Smith.
Utah State moved to 8-11 for the season. Fullerton is 4-7 and 11-9 after winning eight in a row. The Titans have lost four in a row and six of seven since center Aaron Wilhite went out with a knee injury and forward Ron Caldwell was indefinitely suspended.
Which is why Coach John Sneed came up with the slowdown act. He had only seven players who've played much, and he wanted to save them from the altitude, keep the game short and stay close the first half. Those objectives were reached, but Youngblood said the Titans appeared frustrated at not playing their usually quick game.
Certainly Utah State was frustrated that its opponent didn't want to engage head-on.
"It really bothered us," said USU senior Rich Jardine. "We scored 180-something (93-91) down there, and we were expecting an uptempo game and prepared for a lot of things, and then they slowed it down, hoping to lull us to sleep."
Said Youngblood, who had 23 points, "That's how they beat us on the boards (33-27). You forget to do things."
"It really surprised me," said Smith, "because I thought the whole key to their team was their quickness.
"Our players did a good job handling all that," he said. "That's one of the most difficult type of games, because we were really intent on running the floor."
Utah State did get into a standstill early, although steals by Jardine and Randy Funk helped mold a 7-0 lead. "We should have built on that lead a little bit," said Smith. "To really break them, we had to get a few more buckets. But all the people got anxious to get out and guard them, and then we really played into their hands where they'd penetrate and dish it." Soon it was 11-10.
Jardine, who had a nice game with 11 points, said the Aggie bench players kept yelling to those in the game to stay down in their defensive stances - tough to do for 45 seconds without reminders - and he said he heard Sneed tell his Titans that USU wasn't playing defense and to blow by the Ags. "When their coach says that, it motivates us to play a little harder," Jardine said.
Fullerton never led, and it never tied, but USU couldn't effectively shake the Titans, either. Twice the Aggies led by 11. Youngblood made the first four baskets of the second half, three on plays designed to take advantage of Titan scoring leader Joe Small's lesser height. But the Titans always got back within four, until the final minute when fouls gave USU seven points and Funk made a layin with :06 left. That gave him 14 points for the night.
Small had eight points the first half, 16 the second, and was the night's top offender. He added seven rebounds. Acting center Agee Ward had 11 points and seven rebounds, and forward Bruce Bowen had a game-high eight rebounds.
Utah State hosts San Jose State Saturday.