After earning its first conference victory at Nevada, Utah State is back in the loss column. The Aggies are looking to bounce back from a blowout loss to Fresno State over the weekend and finish what they started against Wyoming, coming up just short on a comeback bid against the Pokes in the first meeting between the two sides.
Dropping just two games thus far, Wyoming has had a great run in conference play, solidifying itself as one of the leaders of the Mountain West. The Pokes are unbeaten at home in the league, suffering their lone losses at New Mexico on Jan. 17 and at UNLV on Jan. 31. The latter loss ended what had been a three-game winning streak, but Wyoming got back on track in its last outing, a 59-52 home win against Nevada. With matchups still left against each of the other top six teams in the conference, Wyoming is looking to build more momentum against the Aggies ahead of a brutal four-game stretch, which will see it play at Boise State and Colorado State before hosting the Rebels and Lobos.
Though Utah State is in a tie for last place with San Jose State, it was competitive in its first game against the Pokes, putting together a furious late-game rally before falling by six points, 54-48. It was a surprising performance against one of the conference's top teams, made more shocking by the fact that Utah State's leading scorer, Cheyenne Stubbs, was not at her best. She finished that matchup with just five points.
If the Aggies want to have a chance against Wyoming this time around, it will need more from its star. Her play has been the difference for Utah State throughout MWC play, for better (32 points in the win over Nevada) and for worse (nine points in a 20-point loss to Fresno State on Saturday).
Players To Know
Tess Barnes: Straying a bit from Wyoming's identity as a post-centric squad, Barnes is a three-point shooting specialist. She can score at all three levels, but is the designated sharpshooter in an offense that is otherwise without many deep threats. On the season, Barnes is shooting 33.9 percent from beyond the arc, checking in at No. 8 in the MWC with 1.9 three-pointers a game, and scoring 9.3 points per game.
But, as noted, she’s not just a deep threat. When chased off the line, she's a terrific 62 percent shooter inside the arc, scoring in the mid-range game as well as at the rim.
That's good news for the Pokes, because Barnes has been pretty cold from three of late. She’s hit just one of nine in her past two games, though most of that comes from a 1-of-8 shooting night against UNLV. That's not much consolation for Utah State, however, as a scorer like Barnes either snaps out of a shooting slump or scores around it, and there's plenty of room for that against this Aggie defense.
She had a good game when she visited Logan, finishing with 11 points to complement 18 from Allyson Fertig and helping to guide the Pokes to victory. She went 4 of 7 from the field and 2 of 5 from behind the arc, adding three rebounds, an assist and a steal.
Allyson Fertig: As the Aggies have learned before, Fertig is a unit in the post. She's easily one of the most impressive players in the conference, and certainly among the league’s top centers.
One of the most reliable players in the MWC, when Fertig gets the ball, she’s almost always good for a point or two. Using her toughness and more creativity than you might expect from a center, the junior is shooting 62.2 percent inside the arc.
There’s no easy answer for a player like Fertig. When she’s trapped, she’s not afraid to kick it out or dump it off to one of her teammates, averaging 1.2 assists a game – which is a crucial part of the well-oiled Wyoming assist apparatus.
Sending her to the line seems like a potential solution, and one that teams have tried plenty of in the MWC. She goes to the line more than any other player on the roster, and is successful 71.4 percent of the time – not as often as she’d like, but too often to weaponize against her.
She’s been on a tear lately. Save for UNLV, which touts a frontcourt of Desi-Rae Young, Alyssa Brown and Nneka Obiazor, no one in the league has managed to slow her down. She only had six points in Las Vegas, but is averaging 17 PPG outside of that in her past five games.
Fertig leads the Pokes in scoring, rebounding and blocks, and is near the top of the MWC leaderboards in all three categories. She's averaging 14.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.3 blocks per game, ranking fourth in the league for rebounds and fifth for blocks.
Emily Mellema: Anything Fertig doesn’t do, Mellema does. The junior guard leads Wyoming in assists and steals, serving at the helm on both ends of the floor and averaging 2.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
That isn’t all she does, however. Mellema is a good scorer in her own right, pitching in 8.6 points per game, most of which come on the dribble drive. She shoots just 3.8 threes a game and hits 22.4 percent of them, which is enough to merit paying attention to her on the perimeter but pales in comparison to her 48.3 percent hit rate from within the three-point line.
She’s not one of Wyoming's leading scorers, so her scoring assignments vary pretty widely, but she is capable of high-level offensive output when she needs to be. Mellema has scored as few as two points on three occasions this season, but has also surpassed 15 points thrice, dropping a season-high 25 points in a 67-63 win against Colorado State.
Stats To Know
Two-Point Percentage: The Pokes boast a striking two-point shooting advantage when matched up against the Aggies. Primarily driven by their arsenal of gifted post players, they control the game from the inside out on both ends of the floor.
On offense, Wyoming goes to the paint early and often – with a player like Fertig, it would be hard not to. But, it's not just Fertig who contributes in the post, which is what makes Wyoming so difficult to defend. This offense is infuriatingly efficient and painfully methodical for opposing sides, shooting 55.9 percent inside the three-point line, which is the 10th-best team percentage in the country.
That success extends to the defensive end, where Wyoming walls off the paint and forces its opponents to win with jump shots. The Pokes struggle a bit against teams that can still find their way inside, but allow their opponents to score just 58.9 percent of their points from two-point range, which is 44th nationally. Utah State isn't especially well-equipped to beat that approach.
Assist To Turnover Ratio: The Pokes display an impressive competency in passing the ball, averaging 13.6 assists per game for a strong assist rate of 56.2 percent. For comparison, Utah State averages 8.8 assists per game, one of the lowest figures in the nation.
Wyoming's advantage in the turnover battle is similar. The Pokes average 13.5 turnovers per game, which hardly compares to Utah State's 20.4 per game. When it comes to the assist-to-turnover ratio, Wyoming sits at a comfortable 1.0, while Utah State is down at 0.43.
Now, the Pokes aren't especially good at creating turnovers, averaging just 5.7 steals per game, but they slow the game down extremely well and avoid mistakes, which more than covers for the lack of defensive disruption.
Rebound Rate: Sticking with the theme of this segment, Wyoming holds a significant edge on the boards against Utah State. Particularly on defense, where the team is absorbing 74.9 percent of all rebounds, Wyoming offers few second-chance opportunities, and forces opponents to find for every win it gets on the glass.
Utah State, for reference, grabs 63.3 percent of its available defensive rebounds. In all, Wyoming has a total rebound rate of 52.1 percent, nearly five percentage points better than Utah State's 47.5 percent.
Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.