LOGAN — Prior to last Saturday, the Utah State Aggies would have been confident having Koby McEwen at the free-throw line with 5.3 seconds left while clinging to a one-point lead against UC Irvine.
But like the rest of the Utah State basketball team, the sophomore point guard struggled mightily at the free-throw line in its loss to BYU, knocking down just 3 of 9 attempts. And while he went 5 for 7 line in the first 39-plus minutes of Wednesday night’s game against the Anteaters, McEwen was also just 1 for 11 from the floor.
The 2016-17 Mountain West Freshman of the Year answered the call, however, successfully converting both free-throw attempts to provide the Aggies with a winning margin of 62-59.
“You know, I felt good about that, and that’s a credit to him because things had not gone well for him,” Utah State coach Tim Duryea said of McEwen. “ I actually felt like he was going to make both of those, and that was great to see.”
McEwen ended up with just nine points, two rebounds, three assists, three turnovers and four fouls while playing a team-high 33 minutes. But the Canadian native, who is still recovering from a high-ankle sprain suffered on Nov. 15, also felt like he would knock down those much-needed free throws.
“I always have confidence in myself no matter what,” McEwen. “ I knew my teammates had full confidence in me, and I had full confidence in myself. And I just knocked ‘em down.”
The Aggies (5-5) came away with the victory over their old Big West rivals despite shooting just 36.2 percent from the field and having just one player, sophomore guard Sam Merrill (13 points), reach double figures in scoring.
“It was an ugly win, which for a coach is a great thing to be able to say,” Duryea declared. “We haven't had many ugly wins around here the last couple of years. When you have a team that can win ugly, that means you have a team that can defend a little bit.
“I challenged our guys before the game to hold those guys to under 40 percent from the field, and under 30 percent from 3-point range. We put it on our board, we said, 'That's what we're doing. That's my challenge to you.' Hats off to our guys because it was not easy offensively. They had a great game plan in terms of defending us. We won the game defensively.”
The Anteaters shot 36.2 percent from the floor while going 5 for 17 from the 3-point line. Guards Evan Leonard (12 points) and Max Hazzard (10 points) led UCI in scoring, while former Aggie forward Elston Jones ended up scoring five points and pulling down six rebounds in 16 minutes.
Utah State was outrebounded 43-37, but considering the Aggies’ lack of size in the frontcourt, that was actually a positive. The Anteaters (4-7) came into the contest 15th in the nation in rebounding at 42.8 rpg, and only Duke (450) had more total rebounds (428) so far this season.
Utah State also went 13 for 17 from the free-throw line as a team, a vast improvement over its 10-for-23 effort in last week’s 75-66 loss to BYU.
“We grounded it out; those were ugly offensive stats,” Duryea noted. “Except from the free-throw line, as ironic as that is. We could have used that Saturday night.”
The Aggies led the entire first half, stretching their advantage to as many as 10 points. But UC Irvine closed its deficit down to as little as one point late in the half, and Utah State ended up taking a 34-31 lead in the locker room.
That didn’t hold up for long, though, as the Anteaters scored the first five points after halftime. The visitors led by as many as four points, and the game was tied five times before Utah State slowly built up a five-point advantage.
However, the Aggies couldn’t hold it as they went the final 3:35 without a field goal. UC Irvine also went in an offensive skid, going without a field goal for the last 4:35, but the Anteaters still managed to get to within one point on two occasions thanks to free throws.
A missed layup by Merrill gave UCI a chance to go ahead with 12.7 seconds remaining, but good defense by senior forward Alex Dargenton led to a miss at the other end by Eyassu Worku and junior forward Quinn Taylor ended up with the ball. He fired it off to McEwen, who was fouled and made both of his free throws wrapped around a timeout.
A missed 3-point attempt at the buzzer by UCI forward Tommy Rutherford sealed the victory for the Aggies.
“Anytime we can get a win, it's a good game,” said Taylor, who finished with two 3-pointers, eight points and six rebounds in only 13 minutes. “It was good to be on the winning side of a close game. The two years that I've been here, we've had a lot of close games where we ended up losing, so it was good to get on the winning side.”