WBB Review: Suguturaga's Late-Game Heroics Lift Aggies ABove San Jose State
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WBB Review: Suguturaga's Late-Game Heroics Lift Aggies ABove San Jose State

Utah State picked up its second MWC win of the season and moved out of last place in the conference standings with a 71-70 victory over San Jose State in dramatic fashion. WBB Review:
WBB Review: Suguturaga's Late-Game Heroics Lift Aggies ABove San Jose State
Photo via Utah State Athletics

SAN JOSE – Coming across a dilapidated and injury-riddled team, Utah State proved to be just opportunistic enough to earn a victory over San Jose State.

Spurred by Ivory Finley’s hot hand, the Aggies used a mammoth fourth quarter from Cheyenne Stubbs and a heroic bucket from Samiana Suguturaga to ward off a Spartan attack and hold on just long enough to secure their second win of the Mountain West season.

Clashing against a San Jose State team with six wins and only eight healthy players, the Aggies saw a slim escape route and pounced on it, narrowly sneaking through to get out of last place in the MWC. The standings aren’t final, but after three last-place finishes in the past four years, it sure feels good to climb up a spot, and with how the Spartans are playing, the Aggies have a better-than-even chance at avoiding another last-place finish this time around.

Granted, they would do well to take matters into their own hands rather than hoping for the continued downfall of San Jose State. Another win would go a long way in preventing a relapse to the 11th spot, as both Utah State and San Jose State have ninth-place Air Force remaining on the schedule – a winnable matchup if there is one left for either of these teams.

For now, a win over San Jose State is enough. Utah State snapped a five-game losing streak, improving to 5-21 (2-13) on the season while the Spartans, suffering an active 12-game losing streak, are 6-20 (1-13).

The Spartans were notably short-staffed, starting with the absence of Jyah LoVett. The young star from San Gabriel, Calif., had been putting together a convincing Freshman of the Year campaign and was looking deserving of the honors before a leg injury sidelined her at the end of January.

Though the game didn't showcase two of the conference’s top teams, it did feature two evenly-matched foes, locked in desperate combat. The competition was genuine and the stakes were deceptively elevated, as both teams madly scrapped to avoid sole possession of last place by the end of the night. From the outset, this game differentiated itself from most of the games Utah State has played this season.

Now, it wasn’t exactly beautiful or even well-executed by either side. This was a flawed, chaotic basketball game, but more than anything, it was competitive from start to finish.

The score was tied after a back-and-forth opening salvo, and looked like it would stay that way until the game’s first break. Instead, with 38 seconds to play, Isabella Tañedo kicked it to Gracie Johnson, who found herself with too much space to ignore. She let it fly and hit her second three-pointer of the year, giving the Aggies an 18-15 lead after the first quarter.

By halftime, Utah State had traded that three-point lead for a two-point deficit. In what was anybody’s game as much as it was nobody’s game, the Aggies were still alive, trailing 31-29.

The Aggies trailed by as many as four points in the third quarter, but hung around and ended the frame with a two-point lead, bolstered by 11 points from Finley – who was perfect from the field in the period, knocking down a trio of triples and two free throws.

Eventually, San Jose State began to look like a team with only eight active players on its roster. The squad had not earned an exorbitant amount of room for mistakes even when healthy, and without Lovett, the team’s margin of error became razor-thin – even against Utah State, a pretty forgiving opponent. As the game wore on, the Spartans used up all their room for miscues, and more.

Utah State didn’t seem to be in a hurry to wear the Spartans down, but when they did show fatigue, the Aggies finally tried to creep away. To open the fourth, Maya Andersen quickly knotted the game up at 50, the 12th tie of the contest. Then the Aggies went on an 8-2 run, twice taking a six-point lead. With energy and momentum on their side against a short-handed team, all the Aggies had to do to secure a win was hold on. But, that's not how things went.

As the Spartans stormed back it became increasingly reminiscent of more than a few of the 21 losses this USU team has suffered. When Sofia Kelemeni made a free throw to tie the game at 60, it felt like it was over. The Aggies had missed their chance. They had momentum, but had given it up, squandering that six-point edge. Utah State just wouldn’t have enough gas to finish this one off.

As the inevitable closed in like a wake of vultures, Kelemeni hit a three-pointer, completing her second three-point play in 42 seconds of game time and capping off an 8-0 run that took the Spartans from down by five to up by three. Utah State had blown another lead and appeared to be careening toward a sealed last-place finish in the conference. The only thing that stood between Utah State and that seemingly inescapable fate was the three minutes and 55 seconds left on the clock. That, and a few players in white and blue jerseys.

Stubbs was either undeterred, or someone forgot to tell her the game was over. She responded immediately with a clear and unambiguous message that the Aggies were going to take this thing to the buzzer if they had to. She brought the ball up and, with her typical composed and unbothered demeanor, casually looked for an opportunity. She drifted slightly to her right, thought about it, changed her mind, and wandered over to her left, pulling up for a deep, deep shot leaving plenty of blue court between her foot and the three-point line. Just like that, the game was tied once again.

The Spartans would regain the lead, but it didn’t matter, because Stubbs was heating up. Kelemeni hit a pair of free throws, so Stubbs hit a pair of field goals. The Aggies led 67-65 with 2:43 to go.

With 45 seconds left, the Aggies trailed by one. Stubbs got the ball to Allyzee Verdan in the post. Verdan tried to go to work against the capable double team of Amhyia Moreland and Alani Fluker but was fouled before she could get too far. She stepped up to the line and hit her first shot to knot the game at 68, but missed her second try. Moreland snatched the board and San Jose State called a timeout with 43 seconds remaining.

Coming out of the timeout, Ma caught the inbound pass above the arc and watched as the Aggie defense crumbled in front of her. She opted to take the open lane and took two uncontested dribbles toward the hoop before Utah State could react. She pulled up for a midrange floater, taking exactly what the defense gave her and turning it into a 70-68 advantage.

Utah State called a timeout, a move that was presumably equal parts advancing the ball and drawing up a play. With 39.4 seconds left, holding for the last set would be impossible. The Aggies needed to score fast. Needing just two to tie, they inbounded to Bridget Mullings, but Spartans collapsed on her. Watching the defense trap Mullings, Suguturaga called for the ball. Mullings found her alone at the top of the key and swung a pass to her.

Suguturaga, a scrappy rebounder with a reputation for following her shot to the basket, broke from tradition – her hand still hanging in the air as she admired her handiwork, which pushed Utah State back ahead by one. Though well-earned, the burst of swagger quickly evaporated as Suguturaga snapped back into character. She blitzed the baseline under her own basket, ready to intercept an inbound pass or bring the press without so much as cracking a smile. That pass never came, and San Jose State was forced to use its final timeout.

As clutch as the shot was, it wasn’t a buzzer-beater, and the Aggies still had to hold on for another 34 seconds. Because Sugutraga scored so quickly, the shot clock was still on and the Spartans had a choice to make. Unable to hold for the last shot, they could either play fast and try to score, extending the back-and-forth and trying again defensively, or they could hold the ball and try to score late, leaving the Aggies in a time crunch should they get the ball back. They chose the latter.

Kelemeni fielded the inbound pass and was picked up by none other than Suguturaga. She dished to Ma in the corner with about 10 seconds left on the game clock and seven on the shot clock. Ma had a wide-open look due to Stubbs tripping over a Moreland off-ball screen. She had been unstoppable from deep all night, hitting five of her 10 shots at that point. This one, which could have given the Spartans a two-point lead, was off the mark. Mullings caught the tip drill rebound, but was tied up by Moreland and the possession arrow gave the Spartans an extra chance.

Moreland got one more look at the basket that was, frankly, way too close for comfort, but the ball rimmed out, the clock hit zero, and Suguturaga’s shot proved to be the game-winner.

Stubbs deserves plenty of credit too, finishing with 17 points, two rebounds, two assists and four steals. In the fourth quarter alone, she had nine points, an assist and a steal. She had help, though. Terrific games from Finley, Verdan, Mullings, and the star of the game, Suguturaga lifted the Aggies to victory.

Finley did all of her work on the scoreboard in the third period, adding two rebounds, an assist, and a steal to her 11-point outburst. Verdan got the starting nod for the third game in a row and was up to the task, scoring nine points on a 4-of-4 shooting night, with four rebounds and an assist as well. Mullings came off the bench and handled a tough assignment in Moreland. Along with her game-winning dime to Suguturaga, she had nine points, seven rebounds, three assists and two blocks.

Suguturaga filled the stat sheet all night long. Nothing was as loud as her game-winner, but she finished with 10 points, team highs for rebounds (eight) and blocks (three), as well as three steals.

Utah State will have a tough time building momentum with McKenna Hofschild and the Colorado State Rams on the way to Logan. Hofschild is the all-time Mountain West leader in assists and her team is 16-9 (7-7) on the year.

Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.