I wasn’t so sure about this Aggie team.
Neither was anyone who sat through the sloppy outing at Weber, the foul shooting disaster against BYU in front of a packed house, or the rare comeback loss at Portland State.
But if you’re still in the habit of doubting Koby McEwen and co., it’s probably time to change your tune. Utah State hoops kicked off 2018 with the most impressive pair of victories in the post-Stew Morrill era, propelling the Aggies to their first 3-1 conference start since joining the Mountain West and a seat among the tumultuous conference’s elite.
The Aggies are clutch now
True, it may have taken a 10-0 run at the end of regulation to get there, but Utah State held off one of the MW’s fiercest scorers Wednesday to force an unlikely overtime period and ultimately send Fresno packing. It took grit. It took the most clutch 3-pointer of Diogo Brito’s life. It took a fair amount of chaos. But in the end, Utah State set fire to this season’s script, took Fresno’s best punch, smiled through bloodied teeth and listened gleefully in the postgame presser as Bulldogs head coach Rodney Terry’s mushroom cloud of R-rated obscenities erupted from the room next door.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the Fresno win was the late-game team defense. Overtime doesn’t happen if the Bulldogs find a single point in the final four minutes of regulation — and with Deshon Taylor anchoring their offense, it’s a minor miracle they were unable to do so. Credit coach Duryea with some excellent lineup choices and substitutions throughout the game, including benching Sam Merrill for two possessions just to let him get his head on straight, then setting him loose on Fresno’s suspect perimeter defense. The team weathered the loss of Dargenton late, gave up a 10-0 run of its own before locking in, and still had to earn a call from officials to get McEwen to the foul line, but you know what? A win’s a win, and that one felt special.
The Aggies win on the road now
Oh hey, it’s the Aggies, they’re 1-18 all-time against UNLV in Las Vegas and probably aren’t going to out-rebound or outscore the top-scoring, top-rebounding team in the Mountain West. That’s okay, Brandon McCoy is like, really good. No shame in dropping that game.
At least, that’s what us miserable (reasonable) doubters thought, until Utah State served up the best win of the past four years like it was old hat. No disrespect to Deron Henson, but his perfect 4-4 half from beyond the arc was, shall we say, unexpected. The Aggies held a 10-point lead at halftime and even then feelings were tense. Utah State has seen too many second-half leads evaporate without warning over the years to feel comfortable. The Aggies could’ve been up 25 and folks on Twitter would’ve still worried about jinxing it.
Instead, USU came through in the clutch once more — and pretty much in the same fashion as Fresno’s happy surprise. The Aggies came to themselves, manufactured a 9-0 run in the last two minutes, and iced a win to improve to third place in the Mountain West. Sam Merrill played big, hitting a three to put USU up one and give Aggie nation hope. McEwen came up huge, saving his lone three of the night for Utah State’s most desperate hour and giving Aggie nation something more — swagger. Life. Mojo. Confidence. The feeling of invincibility. Whatever you want to call it, it felt like a turning point not only in the season but in the trajectory of the entire program.
Koby McEwen is back on track
There’s no question USU has a talented group — Merrill, Dwayne Brown Jr. and the occasional bolt of lightning that is DeAngelo Isby are all contributors on offense and aggressive defenders. They’ve also weathered an unfortunate string of injuries to basically anyone taller than 6’6” with remarkable resilience. Singling a guy out doesn’t mean taking away from how well this team plays together.
However, the timely arrival of “Conference Koby” has elevated the Aggies to a team that can run with just about anyone. Injury trouble and the offensive adjustment to a team without Jalen Moore had McEwen struggling early, but now it’s 2018 and it appears the sophomore guard saved his best stuff for conference play. McEwen coolly dropped a career-high 28 points against Fresno before hitting a dagger and knocking down 8-8 free throws in Vegas, and that’s just in the last week. Should his 22.3 points per game clip against Mountain West opponents continue throughout the season, he’ll be an all-MW first teamer in a conference stacked with impressive guards.
The Aggies didn’t exactly shut down Deshon Taylor (24 points) or Brandon McCoy (23 points) last week, but they supplied a star of their own to counter the best Fresno and UNLV had to offer. No team lives and dies by one guy, but McEwen pushing his ceiling to new limits opens up exciting possibilities for this Aggie team most would’ve called delusional back in November.