Much is on the line as the Aggies host a very talented Wyoming squad Wednesday evening in their Mountain West home opener. Utah State is looking to snap a six-game skid, finally match last season’s win total, and move to 1-1 in league competition after falling at UNLV on Dec. 30.
The unavoidable truth is that Utah State, now 3-9 (0-1), has not had a good start to the season. However, the Aggies have a mostly clean slate and an opportunity to show off their competitiveness as they delve into conference play, especially as they move beyond the unenviable task of that matchup with the back-to-back MWC champion Rebels.
Wyoming, which is an even 6-6 on the season, stands as an ideal measuring stick for Utah State's progress. The Pokes are a good team with proven contributors, but a decidedly vulnerable one. They were picked to finish third in the Mountain West and, at No. 107, are the third-best Mountain West team in the NET Rankings.
But, Wyoming hasn’t fared well on the road, touting just a 1-3 mark when away from the Arena-Auditorium with a win at Denver and losses in each of its last three road trips to Gonzaga, Oklahoma State and Montana State. That could be just the type of test Utah State needs to get back on track.
The Pokes are led by head coach Heather Ezell, who is in her second season. She couldn't have asked for a much better start to her tenure, setting a program record for most wins for a first-year head coach with 23 in 2022-23 as she ascended to the top position after seven seasons as an assistant, replacing Gerald Mattinson following his retirement.
With six straight losses, it wouldn’t be correct to say that Utah State has any momentum coming into this game, but the team isn’t lethargic either. One potentially significant sign of improvement comes from points guard Cheyenne Stubbs, who scored a career-high 30 points at UNLV, bolstered by five three-pointers – another personal best. If the Aggies can keep Stubbs on that track, get her some help and limit turnovers, they could make things very difficult for Wyoming.
Players To Know
Tess Barnes: Barnes is the second-leading scorer and perhaps the greatest beneficiary of star center Allyson Fertig’s presence in the paint. When teams crash on Fertig in the post, the ball often finds its way out to Barnes – and when that happens, it goes in 31.1 percent of the time.
The junior from New Zealand is in her third year at Wyoming, and has enjoyed a breakout season. After playing just over eight minutes a game with no starts as a freshman, she found a rotational role last year, playing 19 minutes a game and twice cracking the starting five. Now, she's started all 12 games for the Pokes, and is playing over 28 minutes per contest. Her usage has gone up as well, with a career-high 7.7 field goal attempts per game, nearly twice her rate as a sophomore.
She’s averaging 9.0 points a game so far this season, but as she continues to improve and as her usage continues to go up, that figure can be expected to climb higher. She's contributing elsewhere, too, pitching in 3.3 rebounds and a little under two assists a night. Considering how well she plays off Fertig’s game and how many open shots she's finding, Barnes could put together a really good season if a few more of those team-high 5.1 triples per game start falling.
McKinley Dickerson: Dickerson is a player to keep an eye on. She hasn’t played a large role, and she’s only started two games this season, but she has shown flashes of really high-level playmaking ability – which Wyoming could really use as it continues to look for replacements after losing 2022-23 assist leaders Tommi Olson and Quinn Weidemann.
There are certainly players, such as Emily Mellema and Malene Pedersen, who are more consistent contributors (Mellema leads the team in steals and assists and Pedersen averages 10.8 points per game), but Dickerson could be a fascinating player to watch this season.
Her resume is an interesting one. She's had four games with significant minutes in which she scored zero points, but she's also had two games in which she scored more than 15 – including an incredible 17-point outing in an 86-74 win over BYU. To follow that up, she was held scoreless in three straight games.
In her last two games, she had five points and three rebounds in eight minutes against Wright State, and a game-high 16 points with five rebounds, two assists and a steal in a 61-41 victory over Boise State. With those consecutive productive games, Dickerson has some serious momentum and could be growing into a dangerous rotational player. Utah State can't afford to let her find a groove.
Allyson Fertig: The Aggies will face yet another offense featuring a prominent center on Wednesday. They didn’t find a way to stop the likes of Lauren Gustin (BYU) or Desi-Rae Young (UNLV), so Fertig could be a problem – as she is for just about every Wyoming opponent. She isn’t quite on the same level as Gustin or Young, but in her defense, few are. Still, she is stellar in her own right and leads the Pokes on both ends of the floor.
Fertig can take over a game and can do so in a hurry. She isn’t the type of player who needs a certain amount of looks or minutes before she can make an impact. As soon as she hits the floor, her opponents know.
She’s a coach's dream, pitching in significant production as a scorer, a rebounder and a rim protector. She put up 30 points and 12 rebounds against 22nd-ranked Creighton, and averages team-highs for scoring (13.7 PPG), rebounding (7.3) and blocks (1.7 BPG) while shooting 56.5 percent from the field.
Stats To Know
Field Goal Shooting Percentage: Statistically, Wyoming is mostly a middle-of-the-road team. There are a few stand-out statistics here, though.
Firstly, Wyoming is an above-average field goal shooting team, hitting 43.1 percent of its tries on the year. That's not great news for Utah State, which has allowed opponents to shoot 43.8 percent this season. Most of Wyoming’s efficiency comes from within the three-point line. This offense likes to play inside, and has the weapons to do so, shooting 52.4 percent on two-pointers. Fertig is the standout there, but Barnes, Dickerson, Mellema, Pedersen and Marta Savic are all more than capable of attacking the rim with authority too.
Turnover Percentage: Maybe you’ve heard this one before, but turnovers could be a decisive factor in this game. This time, however, there could be an opportunity for the Aggies, because Wyoming does not force a lot of turnovers, averaging just 11.6 per game. Utah State has been far too willing to give the ball away, and is doing so 20.3 times a game.
If Utah State can take advantage of a defense that doesn't often hunt for steals, it could give other facets of the offense a chance to come together. The Aggies haven't been all that bad from the field when they actually manage to put shots on the rim, and have plenty of capable scorers beyond Stubbs, but empty possessions have crippled this offense all year. Fewer turnovers means more shots for players like Ivory Finley, Skye Miller and Macy Smith – which is usually good news for Utah State.
Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.