LOGAN — Utah State led by as many as 18 points in the first half, but couldn’t hang onto the ball or the lead in the second half as the Aggies lost a heartbreaker to Fresno State, the Mountain West’s second-place team, on senior night, 86-85.
The loss snapped a two-game winning streak for USU and sends the Aggies into the conference tournament as the 9-seed, which sets up a date with the Wyoming Cowboys in the first round at noon MST Wednesday.
“It’s pretty frustrating losing to the teams when we shouldn’t be 7-11,” junior wing Jalen Moore said. “We can’t close out games, some of them, and it’s pretty frustrating. We know we can play with them, so hopefully going into the tournament we’ll have confidence.”
A win would have pushed USU (15-14, 7-11) to the seventh seed and dropped the Aggies to the bottom half of the bracket — avoiding top-seeded San Diego State. Instead, if the Aggies can knock off the Cowboys, the Aztecs will be waiting for them.
Moore and Chris Smith paced Utah State with 22 and 18 points, respectively. However, it wasn’t enough to overcome 18 turnovers, including 12 in the final 20 minutes.
USU head coach Tim Duryea didn’t beat around the bush after the loss.
“(I’m) extremely, extremely disappointed. (An) extremely frustrating loss,” the first-year coach said. “Extremely poor performance by everybody on our team mentally, physically — when you talk about losing a basketball game, the first thing you have to do is not beat yourself and we beat ourselves in every possible way imaginable.
“Extremely poor execution of the game plan, extremely poor taking care of the ball, extremely poor defensively — especially in the second half — just mental mistakes (and) physical mistakes.”
Despite the turnovers, a baseline jumper by redshirt freshman Quinn Taylor gave the Aggies a three-point lead with one minute to play. However, back-to-back turnovers in the final 26 seconds allowed the Bulldogs to pull ahead at the free throw line.
Two of those free throws came after Smith fouled Marvelle Harris in transition with 20.3 seconds to play, despite the Aggies leading by one.
“I have no earthly idea what he was thinking, what he was doing,” Duryea said of Smith’s decision to foul. “I have not a clue. It made no sense at all.”
Fresno State’s Julien Lewis connected on another pair of free throws with 5.8 seconds left to put the Bulldogs up, 86-83, but the Aggies had one last chance after Moore was fouled on a corner 3-point attempt.
Smith threw a Hail Mary pass nearly the length of the court to find Moore in the corner where he was fouled on the shot. He rattled the first two free throws home, but couldn’t tie it up with the third and the Aggies never got another shot off.
Harris, a Mountain West player of the year candidate, rebounded from an ugly first half to finish with a game-high 34 points, including 27 in the second half. He was clutch at the free throw line for the Bulldogs down the stretch, knocking down 8 of 11 before missing a pair with just 3.1 seconds remaining.
Along with turnover issues, USU’s defense deserted in the second half. After holding Fresno State to 38.7 percent shooting in the opening 20 minutes — during which the Aggies embarked on a 25-7 run — USU allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 63.3 percent in the second half. A lot of that hot shooting was directly related to easy baskets off turnovers.
“(Turnovers) definitely helped them get back in the game,” Moore said. “I think they just ramped up their defense a little bit and we just didn’t handle it like we were supposed to.”
In Las Vegas, Utah State will look to avoid ending its season with a loss to Wyoming for the second year in a row. The Cowboys (14-17, 7-11) knocked the Aggies out of the tournament last season, 67-65, and handed USU an 84-65 defeat in Laramie earlier this year.
Follow Tim Olsen on Twitter, @TheRealTO.