LAS VEGAS — It had it all: flurries of 3-pointers, double-pumps, scrambles for loose balls and weaving fast breaks — and in this case, with several kick-outs for 3s (and then some more). A 2012 WAC Tournament first round game between Utah State and UT-Arlington had all the trappings.
For the Aggies, it was their game’s heroes who in the final seconds made two miscues to leave them short of the fourth-seeded Mavericks, falling 83-78.
Forward Ben Clifford scored his second-highest points of his career (16), and guard TeNale Roland tallied a career-high with just as many. But each threw the ball away on each of USU’s final two possessions, ending a season defined by heavy-hitting injuries. The Aggies (21-10) have lost the second-most games due to injury in the entire nation this season.
“I’m proud of our group. We played really hard,” USU coach Stew Morrill said emphatically. “The entire season, we tried night in and night out. It wasn’t quite good enough tonight.”
Morrill said the game, unlike others, was defined by the box score. If so, the offensive fireworks reflected there were an indication of offensive realities. Both teams shot at least 52 percent from the field. Both made at least 44 percent of their 3-pointers. But in committing eight less turnovers (14-6), UT-Arlington attempted 17 more field goals.
Six of the Aggies’ miscues came within the first 5:27 of the game, when the Mavericks (18-12) deployed a 2-2-1 full-court press. It resulted in a 27-9 lead just more than 10 minutes into the game. Clifford, a sophomore, committed four turnovers, and freshman point guard Marcel Davis had two. So did guard TeNale Roland, a junior college transfer playing his first Div. I postseason game. But UT-Arlington coach Scott Cross said that the early pressure was not directly related to attacking USU’s inexperienced players.
The same applied to an abnormal amount of ball screens the Mavericks used on Davis and Roland, both of whom are no taller than 6-foot-2, in order to create mismatches in both isolation and post-ups.
“We just tried to pick up the tempo,” Cross said. “We’re best when we’re quick.”
The Aggies had to be speedy on their own, as they attempted a comeback. Down 40-29 at halftime, two 3-pointers from Clifford and another from Roland gave USU one-point leads, all within the final 11:54. Then the final advantage came when center Jarred Shaw (20 points, nine rebounds) made two free throws with 3:01 left.
UT-Arlington forward Kevin Butler (23 points, five rebounds, three steals) responded by scoring five of his team’s final 12 points, including a steal of Roland’s pass on USU’s final possession. His breakaway lineup provided the final score as Butler said he knew Roland had slowed down near the top of the key to set up a pass to the wing.
Clifford made the same miscue with 23 seconds left, when he tried to dump it in the paint to Shaw after appearing to attempt a 3-pointer. It may not have been a bad idea: he was 4-of-5 for the evening, even though he was just 6-of-26 (23 percent) entering the game.
USU lost to UT-Arlington for a third straight time this season, though USU lost its first game of the year when scoring more than 70 points. They had been 15-0. Its 30-27 rebounding edge also meant they edged their opponent for the 15th straight game, though they went just 7-8 in that span. Five of those losses came by two possessions or less.
The valiant numbers still weren’t sufficient for Clifford or swingman Spencer Butterfield (19 points on 6-of-9 shooting, six rebounds), the catalyst for the team staying afloat after season-ending injuries to starters Danny Berger (cardiac arrest), Preston Medlin (fractured wrist) and Kyisean Reed (ACL tear). (Butterfield averaged nearly six additional points and rebounds following all the losses.) Each said they prefer to be remembered for the improvement they need, as reflected by their final-seconds collapse, than the effort they displayed despite being part of just a seven-man rotation.
“I’d prefer it to be known that we need to take more initiative, that we need to push a little harder,” Butterfield said. “We’ll do that so this doesn’t happen again.”
Notes: The season is over for USU.
After collaborating with postseason tournament officials, his team is an outside candidate for an invitation to the College Basketball Invitational or the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, Morrill said.
And due to the injuries of his team, they probably wouldn’t accept either, anyway. Aside from continued rehabilitation from swingman Danny Berger and guard Preston Medlin, Spencer Butterfield needs hip surgery due to an injury sustained against the same UT-Arlington team March 2.
Last year, the Aggies advanced to the CIT title game, winning five games at the Smith Spectrum before losing to Mercer in late March for the championship.
“This administration feels pretty strongly to shut her down,” Morrill said in reference to the athletics department. “Nothing against the CIT or CBI. If that was our only responsibility, that’s one thing. But we need to make sure our players our recovering.”