It wasn’t pretty, but Utah State did just enough to knock off the University of New Orleans 76-66 on Monday night at the Spectrum in Logan.
“It was a grind-it-out kind of a night,” said head coach Tim Duryea. “We had some stretches where we were really good and we had some stretches where we weren’t very good.”
After struggling through a sloppy 33-point first half, the Aggies put up 15 points in the first 5:40 of the second half, scoring on eight of 10 possessions as they opened a 48-39 lead, the largest of the game to that point.
“The advantage goes to the aggressor,” Duryea said. “In the first half we dribbled the ball, in the second half we drove the ball. Huge difference.”
Freshman guard Koby McEwen sparked the run to start the second stanza, as he grabbed a rebound on the first possession and froze his defender with a hesitation dribble while sprinting up the court, eventually drawing a foul on the shot attempt.
On the ensuing possession, fellow-guard Shane Rector split two defenders, gathered a loose dribble and finished the uncontested layup to put the home team up 36-31.
“They play passing lanes so the gaps are wide open and it gives us room to drive,” McEwen said. “We weren’t doing that enough in the first half, so we decided to turn it up.”
The Privateers worked the lead back down, however, coming as close as 50-49 following consecutive layups by senior guard Christavious Gill.
Duryea called a timeout and on the next possession freshman guard Sam Merrill knocked down a corner 3-point attempt, assisted by senior wing Jalen Moore, to push the lead back to four.
“That was probably the shot of the game,” Duryea said. “We were actually running something to throw the ball inside and Jalen noticed that Sam’s man was cheating from the opposite corner way inside. Jalen, with his size, does a great job seeing over the defense and he skipped it to the other corner and Sam knocked it down.”
The backcourt sparked the offense in the second half, but it was Moore that finally put the game on ice. After a New Orleans free throw brought the score to 57-54, Moore drew fouls on consecutive possessions with aggressive drives and knocked down all four shots from the charity stripe.
Two possessions later, he took the ball on the right wing, hop-stepped through two defenders and banked in a leaning floater to put the Aggies up by seven with under three minutes left, effectively sealing the win.
“I was trying to take over,” Moore said. “I was trying to be more aggressive and get to the free throw line.”
McEwen and Rector held off any comeback attempt, with the youngster putting in seven points in the final 2:12 and the senior scoring two baskets and a free throw of his own.
In that stretch was a highlight play from McEwen that showcased some of the potential that made him one of the most-anticipated recruits in the conference. He caught the ball on the right elbow and lost his defender with a quick spin before finishing the layup through the foul, putting USU up 70-58 with 1:30 remaining in the game.
Moore passed another checkpoint in his Aggie career during the contest as his now-1,284 career points moved him past current Aggie assistant coach and former player Spencer Nelson to No. 19 on the all-time USU scoring leaderboard.
“I was talking to him after the game and he’s happy about it,” Moore said. “He’s a good supporter of me.”
McEwen finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists in 33 minutes. He got to the free throw line 11 times and knocked down nine of them, both of which are single-game career highs.
“I’m just trying to get back to being tough around the rim,” McEwen said. “You’re going to see that probably the rest of the season, I’m going to try my best to get to the line and put up points.”
Moore finished with 18 points and five assists while shooting 5-of-8 from the field — including 2-of-2 from deep — and 6-of-7 at the line. Rector had 13 points, three assists and two steals, and Merrill had nine points on 4-of-6 shooting.
The Privateers’ leading scorer on the season, senior Erik Thomas, finished with 21 points and nine rebounds, but scored six of the points after the lead had reached double-digits.
Utah State will next take on in-state rival Weber State on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Spectrum.