Utah State is looking to match its win total from last season as it closes out a two-leg in-state road trip against Utah Valley, ahead of the first off week of the year for the Aggies. Head coach Kayla Ard's squad has cause for optimism after fighting hard at BYU, coming up six points short of a win against a solid Cougars team. That performance earned them a 24-spot jump in net rankings, and they would love to build on that momentum with a victory in Orem.
The Aggies and Wolverines will face off with identical 3-5 records. Both teams have lost three of their last five and are coming off losses as they enter this game – Utah State has dropped lost two in a row to BYU and Idaho, while UVU fell in consecutive games at Seattle, against Utah Tech and at Idaho State. There is a trio of shared opponents between the two: UVU played Idaho earlier in the season and beat the Vandals 66-59, fell 59-44 against BYU, and outlasted Weber State just as Utah State did, albeit by a slimmer 56-55 margin.
Utah Valley is an exceptionally young team, and like Utah State, it has only two seniors on the roster – each of whom are new to the team. Guard Jenna Dick, who spent a pair of seasons with Eastern Washington and Tarleton State, and forward Liana Kaitu’u, a Salt Lake City native who spent four years at Portland State, are the lone seniors on the team and have stepped immediately into contributing roles.
The Wolverines are no pushovers, but they have some vulnerabilities the Aggies will try to exploit as they look to claim a second consecutive victory in this series after knocking off the Wolverines in Logan last year, 65-55. Utah State holds an 10-6 advantage in the all-time series with Utah Valley.
The Aggies will look, as they usually do, for big production from leading scorer Cheyenne Stubbs. In addition to averaging 16.1 per game – the third-highest average in the Mountain West – Stubbs is shooting 47.9 percent from the field and sits as Utah State's leading passer (2.3 APG) and most effective perimeter defender (2.3 SPG). Skye Miller (10.9 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.4 SPG) and Ivory Finley (7.0 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 1.0 APG) are next up on the stat sheet for the Aggies, and will need to produce big games (as usual) for Utah State to return to Logan with a victory.
Players To Know
Tessa Chaney: After an explosive start to the season, leading Utah Valley with back-to-back 10-point games against BYU and St. Thomas early in the year, Chaney's role has shifted within this squad of late. The 6-3 sophomore looked to be a go-to scorer in Utah Valley's opening games, but has since moved into more of a rebounding-focused role. She’s only averaging five points in the past three games, but she’s adding in 6.7 rebounds during that time.
That may not be bad new for Chaney or for the Wolverines. She's a capable scorer, shooting 50.0 percent from the field, but she's still very much a young player. Foul trouble has given her issues at times, and averaging just 18.3 minutes per game as one of the top players off the bench, there's only so much she can handle at a time. If the Wolverines can rely on scoring elsewhere, she's free to battle for boards as the team's leading rebounder (5.9 RPG) and protect the rim defensively (1.1 BPG). If she's doing that consistently, Utah Valley is plenty happy with her relatively slim offensive production of 5.9 PPG.
Kylee Mabry: The bigger question for Utah Valley has been establishing those scoring threats elsewhere. There are talented scorers on this team, but consistency has been a lot harder to find. Sophomore guard Kaylee Byon averages 22.9 MPG off the bench and is a threat to heat up from the field, scoring in double digits four times this season, but she's also susceptible to off nights – averaging just 4.8 PPG in the other four outings this year. It's largely a question of shooting for Byon, who has hit 6 of 13 tries from deep this year but shoots only 37.8 percent from the field.
Guard Ally Criddle does plenty to earn her starting spot, pitching in 2.9 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, but her scoring is similarly sporadic, averaging 6.9 PPG. She's a good shooter (41.7 percent) and gets to the free-throw line well, but she isn't especially comfortable creating shots off the dribble. Kaitu'u is a fine post scorer, averaging 6.5 PPG, but she's dreadful at the free throw line and her range doesn't really extend beyond the paint.
Mabry, surging as a scorer in Utah Valley's recent action, may provide a solution. The sophomore guard is contributing a team-best 9.0 points per game and has taken off to lead the Wolverines in scoring in each of the previous three games, averaging 15 points per game in that stretch while shooting 50.0 percent from the field and 17 of 21 from the free-throw line. She's been solid as a rebounder (3.1 RPG) and a defender (3.0 SPG) all season, too.
Eleyana Tafisi: Tafisi is the comfortable veteran distributor this team needs in its point guard spot to function. Her scoring has dipped this season – down to 4.5 points per game from her 8.1 PPG average last season – but Tafisi pitches in everywhere for this squad, averaging a team-high 3.5 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game.
In theory, her scoring should progress to the mean as this season develops. Tafisi has never been a particularly strong shooter (37.7 percent from the field last year), but she's comfortable on the dribble drive and good at finishing through contact. If she manages to find her rhythm against Utah State, the Aggies could be in trouble – especially if a few of those other scorers are up for the game.
Stats To Know
Rebound Rate: UVU is an abysmal rebounding team. Like the Aggies, the Wolverines rely heavily on a set of talented guards and wings for production, leaving the glass largely unattended. They're grabbing only 29 rebounds a game for a rebounding rate of 41 percent.
Utah State has not been much better. The Aggies are averaging 31.4 rebounds for a rebounding rate of 46.4 percent, though they do have a bit more size in the post than Utah Valley and could find an advantage there, especially if they don't really have to worry about second-chance baskets for this Wolverines offense – which has an offensive rebounding rate of just 19.7 percent.
Free Throw Percentage: Along with its issues on the glass, Utah Valley is one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the country. Shooting 61 percent from the stripe puts them at No. 344 (out of 360) in college basketball.
For whatever reason, other teams haven’t yet used this to their advantage – Utah Valley is middle of the road when it comes to free throw attempts. Given Utah State’s willingness to continually send Lauren Gustin to the line when she was having an off-night from the stripe, it would not be shocking to see Utah State test the Wolverines in the same way. If they continue to shoot at such a low clip from the line, the Aggies shouldn't have any reservations about sending them back there rather than allowing anything easy at the rim.
Steal Rate: If there is one stat that should make Utah State very nervous, it’s the fact that the Wolverines are very good at swiping the ball.
They average 11 takeaways a game, 22nd-best in the county, and their opponents are turning the ball over 17.8 times a game. That's a nightmarish figure for Utah State, because the Aggies themselves are averaging 19.9 turnovers a game, with 25 percent of their possessions ending in a takeaway.
Utah Valley benefits from some non-steal turnovers, but this is a defense that will absolutely go and take the ball. Six members of this rotation average at least one steal per game, while Utah State is allowing 9.3 steals a contest to this point in the season. Keeping the ball out of harm's way on Saturday is a tall task for a team that just hasn’t shown an ability to do so all season.
With win No. 4 well within reach for Utah State, it can’t afford to give away too many possessions. The Aggies will win this game if they play clean, but that's a big if.
Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.