Utah State men’s basketball survived a close call on Wednesday night against the UC-Irvine Anteaters, holding out for a 62-59 victory.
“We haven’t had many ugly wins around here the last few years,” head coach Tim Duryea said. “When you have a team that can win ugly, that means you have a team that can defend a little bit.”
The Aggies started strong by getting a 5-0 lead on the Anteaters and forcing three straight UC-Irvine turnovers to start the game. After that, defense took over, and both teams spent almost three minutes late in the first half without scoring.
The Aggies went up by as much as eight points before a 9-2 run by UC-Irvine with five minutes in the first half remaining, courtesy of three straight threes, prompting a timeout call from Duryea. Right out of the timeout, sophomore Alex Dargenton broke the string of scoring with a statement dunk. As Utah State began to separate themselves again, UC-Irvine ran out the clock on the final possession of the half with UC-I’s Essayu Worku missing a jumper, but an offensive rebound turned into the Anteaters getting points before the buzzer, plus a made free throw, to cut the Aggies halftime lead to three, 34-31.
Star sophomore Koby McEwen struggled mightily in the first half, shooting 0-8 from the field and committing two turnovers to only one assist.
The Aggies looked to be getting careless in the second half, and they spotted the Anteaters a four-point lead. Merrill narrowly escaped a flagrant foul call when he lost the ball to a steal from Worku and responded by all but dragging the guard to the ground on an intentional foul.
As the two teams traded leads down to the final seconds, USU clung to a 60-59 lead with about 30 seconds remaining, UC-I crashed the boards, grabbing two offensive rebounds in a single possession, but they couldn’t get a shot through. With 13 seconds remaining, the anteaters came out of a timeout and missed a layup, and junior Quinn Taylor grabbed the rebound and got it to McEwen, who drew a foul.
McEwen, after struggling all game long, sank both free throws for a three-point lead, and UC-I’s final shot clanked off, sealing the Aggies’ victory. “I always have confidence in myself, no matter what,” McEwen said. “I’m gonna have bad nights. My teammates had full confidence in me. I just knocked ‘em down.”
The Aggies head down to Salt Lake City this Saturday to play at the Vivint Smart Home Arena in the Beehive Classic, facing Utah in their final in-state matchup. USU has gone 0-2 so far against instate rivals. “We get one more crack at it,” Duryea said.