LOGAN — Utah State on Saturday represented that little kid who jumps for the treat while his older sibling holds it just out of reach.
So close, so many times. And valiant. But … nice try.
For the first time in Stew Morrill’s career — and for the first time since 1994 — the personnel-strapped Aggies have lost four in a row. They fell 51-48 to Louisiana Tech in a contest defined by grit from USU (14-5, 5-4 WAC), often smaller and less athletic than the Bulldogs (18-3, 9-0), the frontrunner in the conference.
Brandon Gibson’s five 3-pointers in the first half gave Louisiana Tech a jump-start that kept USU just out of range the entire contest. A free throw from a tireless Spencer Butterfield tied it at 48 with 1:42 remaining.
But star guard Raheem Appleby received just as much room to make a 3-pointer 20 seconds later. Subsequent possessions from either team went scoreless before the Smith Spectrum crowd, as resilient as their team, saw a 3-point attempt from forward Ben Clifford, in a frenzy, rim out.
It marked the ninth miss in as many tries of the evening for Clifford, who was joined by point guard Marcel Davis (0-of-6) and swingman Marvin Jean (0-of-5) for struggling mightily on the evening.
“La. Tech has won a lot of games like this, where they find a way,” Morrill said. “You gotta give them credit. Our guys kept battling.”
If USU’s rebounding total speaks to Morrill’s analysis of his club, the 15th-year coach was right. The Aggeis out-rebounded the Bulldogs 50-31 — though they certainly received plenty of chances. USU shot just 27 percent from the field, including less than 26 percent in the second half. But answering Morrill’s halftime challenge, they held LA Tech to just 19 percent after halftime, including a 2-of-12 display beyond the arc after going 7-of-15 in the first half. It gave USU an opportunity, as they outscored the Bulldogs 8-2 in five minutes before Appleby’s 3-pointer. USU trailed 35-22 at halftime.
Morrill expressed satisfaction with Aggie center Jarred Shaw (21 points and 14 rebounds), who shot just 3-of-13 and grabbed just three rebounds in 25 minutes in Thursday’s loss to UT Arlington, when Morrill harshly criticized one-quarter of his team for not playing hard enough. But the junior transfer wasn’t pleased himself.
“We can’t just sit and harp over this,” Shaw said. “If we get down about (only eight players), that will just hurt our team. I’ve been in a bit of a slump and down on myself. I just thank God I had a great game tonight.”
As deadly as Gibson, a senior guard, was in the first half, the Aggies struggled to break a full-court press the Bulldogs applied immediately after tipoff, committing 10 turnovers by halftime. USU committed just one after halftime, however, not falling victim to the miscues of most of Louisiana Tech’s opponents this season, who are averaging 20 turnovers per game.
Though the Bulldog’s athleticism figures into that — Morrill said their post players like 6-foot-9 forward Michale Kyser can defend point guards — Louisiana Tech had plenty more on their side.
“Their all-conference athlete made what turned out to be the game-winning shot. Our all-conference player’s arm was in a cast,” Morrill said in reference to USU leading scorer Preston Medlin.
“Credit Utah State. They’ve fought so much adversity,” Bulldogs coach Michael White said of a team that lost two of their top scorers, Medlin and Kyisean Reed, in one game last week. “They’re still the Utah State that has dominated the WAC for a lot of years. They’re tough. They’re mentally tough and physically tough.”
USU next faces Idaho on the road Thursday night.