LOGAN -- In Utah State's final ESPN BracketBusters contest, no Aggie fan's hearts were broken this time.
After losing at the buzzer twice in six days, USU took advantage in the non-conference special -- one of the last in the nation, as ESPN is discontinuing the series -- in beating Illinois State 80-71 Saturday night at the Smith Spectrum.
The recent heartbreakers aside (a 63-60 Feb. 14 loss to Denver and Tuesday's 70-68 defeat at BYU), it marked USU's fifth straight win after losing four straight following injuries to guard Preston Medlin and forward Kyisean Reed in a Jan. 17 defeat at New Mexico State.
It was a completeness of that too-important organ was apparent throughout the evening. The Aggie cheerleaders' halftime performance even involved an imitation of a full heart.
Even USU coach Stew Morrill after the game imitated the smile found on "Wild" Matt's plump torso designed to distract free-throw shooters -- though he wasn't satisfied with the Redbirds' 21-10 lead just seven-and-a-half minutes into the contest, propelled by three 3-pointers from Tyler Brown.
"We didn't start out very well. They could have beat us by 30," Morrill said. "But then we did a lot of good things."
The latter would include a 40-35 rebounding edge, 52 percent shooting and four players who scored in double figures, including a USU career-high from guard TeNale Roland (13 points on 3-of-6 3-point shooting, five rebounds). Jarred Shaw(18 points on 6-of-11 shooting) led the way after a 1-of-5 first half, while swingman Spencer Butterfield's 16 points marked his fifth straight game with at least that many. ISU also shot just 37 percent.
Trying to become the first team in Missouri Valley history to finish at least .500 in league play after starting 0-6, the second-best offense in its conference was held below its average (75).
Those struggles can't be attributed to the Redbirds' stars in Tyler Brown and Jackie Carmichael. In front of scouts from the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks, the two proved to be exactly the weapons that Morrill had warned about earlier in the week. Brown scored 35 points on 11-of-22 shooting -- more than a third of the Redbirds' field goal attempts -- including a 7-of-14 display from beyond the arc. The senior guard's five 3-pointers in the first half helped ISU score eight of their 10 field goals from beyond the arc by halftime -- a saving grace for the group, given that they shot just 10-of-30 in the first half.
"He's a great player," said USU point guard Marcel Davis, who shot just 3-of-10 and committed four turnovers while being defended by Brown. "Once we got out and tried to defend his 3-pointers, we were in good shape."
Carmichael, a 6-foot-9 forward, scored 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting, made six more free throws and joined Brown in nabbing 10 rebounds. Just one other Redbird (guard Bryant Allen, 3-of-9) attempted more than six field goals.
Morrill abruptly refuted the philosophy to stop every player on a team except for their top two scorers. Following Carmichael (17.8) and Brown (16.8), no ISU player averaged more than nine points per game.
"I've never approached it that way. You try to guard them all," Morrill said. "You try to play them with variety."
USU certainly did that in deploying a triangle-and-two defense early in the second half against the ISU stars. After scoring six points in less than two minutes to nullify a four-point halftime deficit, the Redbirds were out-scored 20-8 in the next 8:23, with ISU shooting just 3-of-13 during the span.
"A lot of points came through Carmichael and Brown, so we had to change up defensive looks and limit what they could do," Davis said.
Butterfield didn't agree: "We definitely wanted to hold them down," he said. "We couldn't once they got hot early."
"We worked hard in that zone," Morrill said. "It's kinda hard when a coach sees a triangle-and-two. It's like, 'oh, what are they running?' "
ISU coach Dan Mueller said the Aggies were "one of the better teams" his team played this season, a schedule that has included nationally ranked Louisville and Creighton.
"They run a lot of stuff and are well-coached," he said. "We made plenty of defensive mistakes; the problem was that the mistakes came back to get us. That is what a good team does; they take advantage."
After a two-game hiatus, USU returns to conference play Thursday at Louisiana Tech.