LAS VEGAS — It was all there for the taking.
Seeding, recent history, matchup problems — none of that mattered as the Utah State men’s basketball team held a 61-59 advantage over highly-favored San Diego State with less than two minutes remaining.
However, despite the Aggies leading for more than 24 minutes during the game, it was the top-seeded Aztecs who made the plays down the stretch and ended USU’s season with a 71-65 victory.
“I’m really proud of how the guys played. I feel like this might have been one of the hardest games we’ve ever been in,” junior Jalen Moore said. “Everybody played hard. Nobody wanted to lose. I felt like all five guys on the court, all the guys on the court, all the coaches, felt like we could win this game throughout the game. I never had a thought in my mind we were going to lose the game until at the very end.”
With Utah State trailing by three with 10.3 seconds remaining, SDSU elected to send the Aggies to the free-throw line rather than give up a 3-point opportunity. After trading free throws, USU still found itself down by three with 5.8 seconds to play.
Point guard Shane Rector appeared to fire a shot from half court as the Aztecs’ Trey Kell closed in for the foul. But officials ruled Rector was not in the act of shooting, leading to only two free-throws.
The junior made both attempts, but the Aggies still needed some help down 66-65 with just 3.8 remaining. They didn’t get it.
Sophomore Julion Pearre was whistled for an intentional foul as SDSU was trying to inbound the ball and the Aztecs were awarded two free throws and the ball. A subsequent flagrant foul on Rector and more free throws iced the game for the MW’s top seed.
“The intentional foul on Julion is really more my fault,” USU head coach Tim Duryea said. “We wanted to foul (Dakarai) Allen as the ball was coming inbounds, and so Julion grabbed him. The explanation given to us was that he didn’t’ have enough to do with the play for us to be able to grab him, and the rule said that was an intentional foul. So there you go.”
For the Aggies, who missed their last nine attempts from the field, as well as 11 free-throws overall, it was another game that left them wondering, ‘What if?’
Leading scorer Chris Smith struggled to shake free all game, attempting just five shots while connecting on only one to finish with four points. It was the senior guard’s fewest since tallying only two in the Aggies’ loss at San Diego State.
“Winston Shepard … he does a phenomenal job on Chris Smith,” Duryea said. “His size and tenacity as a defender really makes it hard. He’s not the only guy that makes it hard, but he really does a good job on Chris.”
Though the Aztecs locked him up for most of the game, Smith did get an open look at a corner 3 with 1:52 remaining that would have pushed USU’s lead to five. Instead, it bounced off the rim and a jumper by SDSU’s Malik Pope tied the game on the Aztecs’ subsequent possession.
Moore continued his stellar play in the latter half of the season with 14 points, nine rebounds and a pair of assists. He had a drive into the lane to tie the game with 12 seconds left, but it missed off the glass — leading to the final sequence.
The loss was a microcosm of the Aggies’ season, where the inability to execute down the stretch proved costly in multiple losses. USU head coach Tim Duryea finished his inaugural season with a 16-15 record. With a strong core returning and a solid recruiting class coming in, the Aggies will look to build on that in 2017.
“We’re definitely headed in the right direction,” Moore said. “I feel like towards the end of the season we definitely got a lot better … as I think a lot of people could see throughout the game today and yesterday.”
Follow Tim Olsen on Twitter, @TheRealTO.