That's as happy as a locker room as I've seen in quite a while after a regular-season win —USU head coach Tim Duryea
LOGAN — For Fresno State, Wednesday night’s game at the Spectrum will be remembered as an epic collapse in which the Bulldogs blew a 10-point lead over the final four minutes of regulation.
But while FSU head coach Rodney Terry could be heard tearing into his team in its locker room long after Utah State’s 81-79 overtime victory, the sounds coming from the other end of the hallway were far different.
“That’s as happy as a locker room as I’ve seen in quite a while after a regular-season win,” USU head coach Tim Duryea proclaimed.
Utah State (9-7 overall, 2-1 in the Mountain West) has struggled to finish out close games in recent seasons, but somehow the Aggies found a way to make key plays and get big defensive stops at the end of regulation and the overtime period against a good Fresno State team.
“That was a fun one. A gritty win for us. We haven’t had a lot of those the last couple of years,” USU sophomore guard Sam Merrill said. “We were down, found a way to come back, guarded really well in the last minutes and overtime. Our defense is what won that game.”
While it may not show it on the stat sheet — Fresno State shot 51.6 percent from the field, including 7 of 14 from 3-point range — the Aggies battled the Bulldogs (11-5, 1-2) tooth and nail in a game that featured 13 ties and 16 lead changes. But a four-minute spurt in the second half suddenly turned a 59-59 tie into a 10-point lead for Fresno State with 4:12 remaining.
“At the end of the day, you just have to close the game out,” Terry said. “Games are hard to win on the road. You have an opportunity to do it, you have to step in and do it."
Although school doesn’t begin again at Utah State until next week, a solid crowd of 8,276 showed up at the Spectrum and suddenly came to life when the Aggies needed them most. A 3-pointer by Dwayne Brown Jr. quickly cut FSU’s advantage down to seven points, but moments later, USU forward Alex Dargenton re-injured his right ankle and had to be helped off the court.
Undaunted, the Aggies kept getting stops, finally slowing down junior guard Deshon Taylor and sophomore forward Bryson Williams, who finished with 24 and 18 points, respectively. Four straight points by Merrill got Utah State back to within 69-66 with 1:57 to go, and a driving layup by Koby McEwen left the hosts down by just a point 30 seconds later.
Things got wild in the final minute, however, with Brown being called for traveling after a would-be huge rebound with 5.6 seconds remaining. Merrill quickly fouled Taylor afterward, but FSU’s leading scorer missed his first attempt and Quinn Taylor came up with the rebound.
Taylor fired the ball ahead to McEwen, who then benefitted from touch foul by DeShon Taylor with just under a second left. McEwen made his first free throw to tie the score at 69-69 but then missed the potential game-winner moments later.
“I kind of let my guard down after the first one went in,” Duryea admitted. “I really thought Koby was going to make the second one.”
A determined McEwen drove in to score the first two points of overtime, but Fresno State quickly countered with six straight points to go up 75-71 with just over two minutes to go. That’s when Dargenton emerged from the tunnel on crutches, and his teammates promptly responded with a 3-pointer by sophomore guard Diogo Brito and another driving layup by McEwen to take the lead for good.
Following a 10-1 Aggie run, a running 3-pointer at the buzzer by Fresno’s Jahmel Taylor made the score seem closer at the end.
“Obviously, the one downer for us is Alex Dargenton's ankle,” Duryea noted. “Alex did a tremendous job when he was in there. Probably had his best game as a low post player in his career. Hated to see him go out.
“But, Koby McEwen was Koby McEwen tonight and was getting downhill on top of that rim and doing a really good job there.”
McEwen ended up tying his career-high with 28 points on 10 of 18 shooting while playing a career-best 41 minutes. Merrill (16 points), Dargenton (13 points) and Brown (11 points, seven rebounds) all reached double figures for the Aggies.
Dargenton, who suffered a high-ankle sprain against Utah on Dec. 9, missed two games with the injury but was plugged back into the starting rotation Wednesday after seeing limited action off the bench in USU’s two games last week. Duryea said he wasn’t optimistic that Dargenton would be able to play in Saturday’s game at UNLV.