LOGAN — It could have ended up like a horror movie for the Aggies.
But after going into halftime tied with 10th place Wyoming, Utah State “flipped the script” thanks to a “monster jump” in defensive effort during the second half, according to head coach Craig Smith.
“They shot 60.9 percent in the first half, and sometimes that means you need to make adjustments and other times that means you just need to adjust your mindset,” Smith said following Utah State’s 76-59 victory Wednesday night at the Spectrum.
“And it felt like we needed to adjust our mindset. We wanted it to be easy, and it’s never going to be easy in this league, no matter what. And you see the disparity in the second half. They shot 29.6 percent in the second half.”
The victory keeps Utah State (9-3 in the Mountain West, 19-6 overall) in second place in the conference standings, while Wyoming (2-9, 6-18) remains ahead of only last-place San Jose State.
The Cowboys certainly didn’t look like a next-to-last-place team for much of Wednesday’s game. But after the visitors took a 47-44 lead with 13:21 remaining, just about everything seemed to go USU’s way for the rest of the contest as the Aggies closed out their eighth win in nine games with a 32-12 flourish.
“I didn’t think our frontline was very good in the first half, quite frankly,” Smith said. “But in the second half, they were much better. ... And those guys got to be players for us, night in and night out, for us to be what we need to be.”
Utah State’s two starting big men both ended up with double-doubles, as senior forward Quinn Taylor (13 points, 10 rebounds) and freshman center Neemias Queta (14 points, 10 rebounds) both finished the game strong after combining for just five points and eight rebounds in the first half.
Junior guard Sam Merrill led the Aggies with 19 points and four 3-pointers, while sophomore guard Abel Porter added 11 points and three 3-pointers. Junior guard Diogo Brito also played a key role down the stretch, coming off the bench to contribute nine points and four assists.
After shooting just 37.9 percent in the first half, Utah State hit on 65 percent of their field-goal attempts in the second half and went 10 of 20 from 3-point range for the game.
“I think we played hard, as usual, but we didn't play as hard as we usually do in the first half,” Queta said. “We were kind of down at the half, but at halftime, coach just told us to be players and go at them and play harder. That's what we did and we came out with the win.”
Merrill, who logged a team-high 39 minutes, also had the unenviable task of defending Wyoming guard Justin James for most of the game. The Cowboys’ leading scorer at 20.7 ppg, the 6-foot-7 senior finished with 26 points while playing the entire game. However, James was the only Wyoming player to finish in double figures.
Junior guard Jake Hendricks, a product of Sky View High School in nearby Smithfield, also played all 40 minutes for the Cowboys, scoring six points on 2 of 7 shooting.
“(James) gets a quiet 26, if you can say that,” Smith noted. “But we did kind of hold the rest of those guys in check, particularly in the second half.”
After having their seven-game winning streak brought to an end last Saturday with a 68-63 loss at San Diego State, the Aggies, who haven’t lost back-to-back games all year, were happy to be back at the Spectrum where they had won 10 of their first 11 games.
Early on, the Aggies seemingly had Wyoming’s zone solved, with Porter knocking down three 3-point attempts in the first four minutes. Utah State then broke away from a 12-12 tie with an 11-0 run highlighted by two 3-pointers by Merrill, the second of which prompted a Wyoming timeout with the home team suddenly up 23-12.
But from that point on, the Aggies’ enthusiasm seemed to slip the remainder of the half as the Cowboys kept knocking down shot after shot and came back to tie the game at 34-34 with 2:26 left on a 3-pointer by Brandon Porter. The game was tied at 37-37 at halftime with the Cowboys shooting a remarkable 60.9 percent against the Aggies, who came into the night leading the Mountain West in defensive field goal percentage defense at 38.7.
Wyoming kept rolling early in the second half, though, at least until Smith could take no more and ended up getting called for a technical foul while disputing a foul call on Queta with 16:35 left.
“It’s like if you’re boiling water and you put the water in there, and it’s a certain temperature and then you can just see it happening,” Smith said of his first technical as head coach of the Aggies. “And so it is what it is, but I thought our guys responded in a very positive fashion.”
Utah State’s turnaround got underway thanks, in a large part, to Queta asserting himself more on both ends of the court, scoring seven straight points while also pulling down rebounds and greatly affecting Wyoming’s offensive attacks.1 comment on this story
Taylor soon got into the act, as well, completing a 3-point play to put USU up 58-52, then knocking down a 3-pointer to push the Aggies’ lead out to eight and signal the beginning of the end for the Cowboys’ shot at an upset.
“I felt like I kind of let my team down in the first half with how I was playing offensively,” Taylor said. “So, it was good to see it go down because my teammates, they trust me. And when they pass me the ball, I need to be able to knock down open shots. It felt good.”