Utah State has a shot for a winning record as they host the Idaho Vandals in the now-annual elementary school day matinee.
After sharing a conference for almost a decade when both teams called the WAC home from 2005-2013, Idaho is one of Utah State’s more familiar non-conference foes. This Vandal team might be tougher than the Aggies remember from their WAC days, however. Utah State boasts an 11-9 record against Idaho from the time they spent as conference-mates, with the Aggies winning 9 of the last 11 matchups between the two in those bouts, including their final six regular-season meetings. For the full series, Idaho holds a slim 14-12 advantage, winning the most recent meeting between the two – a first-round bout in the 2017 WBI.
Directed by first-year head coach Carrie Eighmey and led on the court by senior Sarah Schmitt, the Vandals are an experienced, smart basketball team. They play under control, and will not be an easy out for the Aggies. Utah State is coming off a comfortable victory over Warner Pacific, winning 66-54 but leading by nearly 20 points in the waning moments of the game.
In that win, the Aggie defense was at times overpowering. Particularly in the second quarter, when the Aggies blitzed the Knights off the court with a 25-5 edge, the defense looked very sound. Utah State is hoping that defensive performance continues into this bout, and may need it to for the sake of a victory.
The offense will likely turn to star Cheyenne Stubbs to lead the way, as it has all year. Stubbs had scored 15 or more points in her past four games and is averaging 15.8 points a game – which is not only the best on the team, but third-best in the Mountain West. She also leads the team with 2.5 assists per game and shoots an excellent 50 percent from the field.
Behind her is Skye Miller. Miller has been nothing if not stable and consistent this year. She has scored between 10 and 17 points in every game this season on 43.1 percent shooting from the field. She scores efficiently and gets to the line reliably, leading the team with 26 free throw attempts – though she could afford to do more with those opportunities, shooting only 61.5 percent at the stripe.
The one-two punch of Stubbs and Miller has become very dangerous for Utah State, but the question mark on the offensive side, and perhaps the key to success for the Aggies, is Ivory Finley. A talented shooter who can score at all three levels, Finley has helped Utah State to a perfect 3-0 record when she's among the top three scorers in a game.
The problem there is a simple one: Utah State has struggled to get Finley involved consistently. Finley scored only eight points in the season-opening loss to CSUN and did not score in losses to Eastern Washington and UC Riverside. Meanwhile, she put 17 on the board in a win over Kansas City, 10 against Weber State, and eight over Warner Pacific. Utah State will be desperately looking to get her involved behind Stubbs and Miller.
Samiana Suguturaga had something of a breakout game against Warner Pacific with eight points, two rebounds, an assist, four steals and a block. It wasn’t the first time Sutuguraga has impressed this season – she had seven points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals against Kansas City – but Utah State is hoping it's a sign of things to come. Though not quite as important as the progress of Finley, the Aggies could really use some reliable play from at least one of their bigs, be it Suguturaga, Tiairra Hill-Brown, Bridget Mullings or Allyzee Verdan.
PG: Cheyenne Stubbs
SG: Skye Miller
SF: Ivory Finley
PF: Tiarra Hill-Brown
C: Bridget Mullings
PG: Sarah Schmitt
SG: Amalie Langer
SF: Asha Philips
PF: Kennedy Johnson
C: Hope Butera
Players To Know
Kennedy Johnson: Johnson is in her first year at Idaho after the winger from Hayward, Calif. spent two seasons at UC Santa Barbara. A 5-11 junior with versatility and athleticism on either end of the floor, Johnson fits in quite nicely in Carrie Eighmey’s system. She has been a reliable points-getter and a cerebral playmaker who can make plays in the post and from the perimeter.
She started the season strong with 18 points against Walla Walla, and though she hasn’t yet matched that performance, her slide hasn’t been too drastic. She’s averaging 9.0 points a game, with 6.0 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.2 assists a night.
She's shot the ball pretty well from the field (40.4 percent), she's terrific on the offensive glass (2.2 offensive rebounds per game), and she has the athleticism to threaten a defense as a slasher – though she needs to do a better job of getting to the free-throw line. On a team filled with players who like to fire from deep, Johnson can be a dangerous change of pace against a defense that isn't fully ready for her.
Amalie Langer: After spending five years at the University of San Francisco, Langer transferred to Idaho this offseason. Averaging 9.4 points a game, the 5-9 guard is leading the team in scoring – heading a trio of Vandals averaging just over nine points.
She had a rough go of it against Cal Poly, scoring only four points on 10 shots and struggling with foul trouble, but she's been fantastic outside of that game. Langer has finished in double digits in each of her last three games, and is good for 2.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.6 steals a night to go with the scoring output.
Langer is more than willing to shoot the three, taking 20 triples on the season (second on the team), but she's yet to find her stroke from deep, knocking down only 20 percent of those tries. She's been at her best working off the dribble drive, shooting 33.3 percent on two-point tries but drawing a team-high 20 free-throw attempts with a nearly automatic 95 percent hit rate. If those outside shots start falling, Langer is a true No. 1 scoring option for the Vandals, and that's why she's here in the first place.
Ashlyn Wallace: A local product from Lapwai, Idaho, Wallace fills an interesting niche on this team. She doesn't start, but the 5-6 junior is comfortably Idaho’s biggest threat from deep, and she still logs nearly 28 minutes per game as the first player off the bench.
Her offensive game doesn't really extend beyond her expertise from deep, but it hasn't needed to. She leads the team with 25 attempts from beyond the arc, has knocked them down at a 44.0 percent clip, and sits at No. 2 in scoring with 9.2 points per game, plus 2.0 rebounds and 1.2 assists.
She's a defensive specialist, too, leading the Vandals with 2.2 steals per game as a true three-and-D threat. She'll enter Wednesday's game very early on, and if her shot is falling – as it has all season – Utah State can expect to see quite a bit of No. 3, likely in combination with the playmaking point guard Schmitt and do-it-all slasher Langer.
Stats To Know
Turnover Percentage: Utah State will again face a team that doesn’t turn the ball over on Wednesday morning. The Vandals are averaging only 13.3 turnovers per game, which puts them in the 90th percentile among all DI WBB squads. The Aggies, on the other hand, are averaging 21.6 turnovers a game – which places them among... less exclusive company, in the sixth percentile.
This has not been without consequence. Utah State’s 123 turnovers to its 63 assists are simply unsustainable, especially as the competition ramps up. Facing a team unlikely to give those turnovers right back, the Aggies have to take better care of the basketball, lest they suffer a serious disadvantage in shots at the basket.
Free Throw Rate: Fouls and free throws could be a major factor in this game, and not in a positive way for the Aggies. Idaho has done a very good job of getting to the line offensively this season, but the Vandals are also rock-solid at the other end of avoiding the easy points from opposing offenses.
On offense, 21.6 percent of Idaho's two-point scoring attempts end with a Vandal at the stripe. Again, they're in the 90th percentile nationwide here. Scoring over a quarter of their points at the line, the Vandals have the eighth-highest point total from free throws in the country.
Utah State has done a decent enough job of getting to the line themselves, with a 20.3 percent free throw rate (81st percentile), but the Vandals may have an answer for that. They're committing only 13.3 fouls per game, the 13th lowest in the country. There's not a dominant rim protector here, but Idaho's defensive approach is all about contesting shots without fouling and forcing opponents to knock down those looks.
The Vandals play smart and use the rules of the game to their advantage. This is a system built around fundamental basketball on both ends of the floor, limiting mistakes and daring teams to beat them straight up. Utah State needs to knock down shots to move to 4-3 on the year, but the Aggies also have to play a much cleaner game than they're accustomed to.
Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.