The Utah State men’s basketball team took advantage of the winter break, turning a rocky start to conference play into solid positioning in the Mountain West.
The Aggies fell to Boise State and Air Force in the first week of MW play, but as the temperatures in Logan started to plummet, the Aggies heated up, grabbing a crucial 79-75 home win against New Mexico and a 79-63 road victory against UNLV.
Rebounding was a weakness in the two losses, but the Aggies turned that around to win the battle of the boards against New Mexico and UNLV.
“We out-rebounded them, and they’re a good rebounding team, so that’s huge for us,” senior wing Jalen Moore said after the win over the Lobos on Wednesday. “I feel like we had guys that wanted to win.”
Middle-of-the-pack offensively in the Mountain West through three games, the Aggies came alive against the Rebels Saturday night. As a team, USU shot 13 of 21 from deep and connected on more than half of its field goal attempts.
The Rebels, by comparison, shot just 37 percent from the floor and 17 percent from 3-point range.
The consecutive victories, which moved the Aggies from the bottom of the conference to a tie for fourth, were early positive returns from a starting lineup change by head coach Tim Duryea. Freshman guard Sam Merrill made the first two starts of his career in the two victories and he partnered with fellow-freshman Koby McEwen to provide a potent scoring punch. The two combined for 31 points and 11 assists against UNM and 42 points against UNLV, including an eye-popping 28-point-seven-rebound-six-assist statline by McEwen in the latter game.
Prior to the victories, the Aggies suffered two disappointing losses. The first, a heartbreaking 83-80 home defeat to BSU, was nearly an exhilarating comeback win, but USU allowed three offensive rebounds in the final minute of the game and was unable to complete the comeback. The Aggies did knock down all 20 free throw attempts in the half, however, a significant deviation from the season-long charity-stripe shooting percentages.
A slow start doomed the Aggies in the road loss to the Academy as the Falcons started the game with a 15-0 run. The offense recovered to respectable shooting percentages, but it was not enough to avoid the 78-73 road loss.
The most disappointing result of the break, however, was the 77-71 non-conference loss to Weber State, the Wildcats’ first victory in the Spectrum since 1993. USU out-performed the visitors in assists, rebounds, blocks and turnovers forced, as well as maintaining a higher shooting percentage from the floor and from behind the 3-point line. Weber State knocked down more shots from deep, however, proving the difference in the game.
The Aggies will take to the road this week with a game at Wyoming on Wednesday and at the surprisingly-winless San Diego State Aztecs on Saturday.