For Utah State, Tuesday night's Big West Conference opener against Fresno State was to be the start of a new season, a second chance after a dismal preseason performance. Alas, by the time the final buzzer sounded, and USU had lost 76-72, it had become clear that the new season looked very much like the old.
For the record, the Aggies led by as many as seven points midway through the second half, and by four points with just under 8 minutes remaining. They scored seven points the rest of the way, three of them coming on a meaningless three-point heave in the closing seconds.Is there a Doctor Heimlich in the house?
The Aggies missed the front end of two one-and-one foul shots in the final minute, not to mention several chip shots, when all that separated the two teams was two points.
"When the game is there to be won, you've got to have a little poise," said USU coach Kohn Smith. Which is precisely what the Bulldogs had. They drilled six foul shots in as many tries in the final minute, which proved to be the difference in a game that produced 14 ties and 10 lead changes.
"Frankly, when crunch time came we did the things that we had to and they didn't," said FSU coach Ron Adams.
Of course it helps when one has Jervis Cole on your side. Cast your all-star ballots early. Cole, a 6-foot-6 forward, scored 27 points - despite missing 5 of 7 foul shots - and hauled in 9 rebounds. And then there was Kevin Stevenson, who was starting in place of one Andre Sims, who overslept and missed the team flight. Stevenson scored 12 points, half of them down the stretch. Thus, the Bulldogs are 6-4, and one-up on the road.
Pity Smith. In this his first season as USU's head coach, the Aggies are off to a 2-8 start. And this from a team that was picked to finish second in the Big West race.
"You've got to win your home games," said Smith. "This puts us in a bad spot."
What's a coach to do?
Against the Bulldogs, the Aggies took 18 fewer shots than their opponents; the USU guards committed 17 turnovers; the Ags surrendered 13 steals; and star guard Reid Newey left his shooting touch in the halftime locker room.
All by himself, Newey kept the Aggies in the game in the first half. Sure, he failed to score for the first 9:53 of the game, but when Fresno moved out to an 18-14 lead, Newey answered with a three-point bucket from the left baseline. That's the way the remainder of the half proceded. Everytime the Bulldogs made a move, Newey was there. When the Bulldogs went up 25-19, Newey hit a three-pointer from the top of the key and one minute later the Aggies were even, 25-all. Again the Bulldogs opened a slight lead, this time 38-35, but Newey hit another three-pointer.
During a one-minute stretch near the end of the half, Newey scored 7 of USU's 9 points to put USU up 45-43 at halftime. In all, he scored 19 points in the last 10:07 of the half.
"When he got 19 points in the first half, I thought we were in trouble," said Adams. "I thought we had to stop him to win."
But just like that, Newey's hot streak was finished. In the second half he would hit zero of 9 field goal attempts and score one point, on a free throw. "You just keep thinking the next one will drop," said Smith. It wasn't all Newey's (un)doing. "We matched up more on him in the second half," said Adams. But even with a crowd in his face, Newey, the leading scorer in the Big West, with a 22-point average, kept putting up shots. "He's got to give it (the ball) up when he's got guys flying at him," said Smith. "He had a very bad half. He's our best offensive weapon against the zone. He should force them out of it. When he's off, then we're in trouble."
Indeed, Newey had little help elsewhere, with the exception of Darrel White, who, in his third start, scored 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting, and had a team-high 7 boards. "Darrel continues to play well, but we've got to have more scoring from the other guys," said Smith, referring to Dan Conway (4 points), Nate Grant (4), Kendall Youngblood (5), Greg Houskeeper (6).
"This is terrible," said Newey. "It's the worst thing we could have done, to lose to this team at home."
"We don't have a single game that will be easy for us," said Smith. "We're struggling. If we play like we did tonight, Pacific will beat us Thursday night."