LARAMIE – Utah State is starting to stack losses again in the wake of its first MWC victory, dropping its second game in a row after falling to Wyoming. The Pokes are among the league's best sides, and have been just about unbeatable in Arena-Auditorium, as the Aggies learned in a 62-47 loss.
With the win, Wyoming improves to 14-8 (9-2) on the year, and is still in the hunt for the conference title, just a game back from UNLV. Utah State, on the other hand, is now 4-18 (1-10) and owns sole possession of last place. While Wyoming fights for one bookend, Utah State comfortably holds the other.
Even with a 15-point final margin, the score isn’t quite reflective of how easily Utah State was dispatched – the Aggies closed the game out with nine unanswered points, which Wyoming didn’t seem overly reluctant to concede.
To have any chance at victory, the Aggies needed Cheyenne Stubbs. They needed quite a bit more than just their star, but that was the start of the conversation for any potential upset. Heather Ezell and her Wyoming squad were acutely aware of this, preparing well for Stubbs and doing everything they could to neutralize her.
By the time she got involved, it was already too late. The Aggies were already down by 15 points when Stubbs finally broke onto the scoreboard with a step-back three-pointer to cut the Wyoming lead to 12 at the 5:01 mark in the second quarter.
The Pokes led from start to finish, taking the first edge of the game on a Malene Pedersen layup and never relinquishing it or even allowing a tie. Within two points was the closest the Aggies drew, picking up a three from Samiana Suguturaga and a Gracie Johnson layup to make it 9-7 with 3:56 remaining in the first frame. Wyoming’s resident Cache Valley native Maren McKenna immediately hit a three to answer, and Utah State never got closer. That three kickstarted seven straight points for the Pokes, ending the quarter with a 16-7 lead.
Utah State's slow offensive start was only slightly sped up in the second quarter. The Aggies started the frame with just three points to nine for Wyoming before Stubbs made her first bucket of the night. It was fairly even across the second part of the period, but Wyoming still expanded on its first quarter lead, staking out a 33-18 edge at the break.
The Aggies, to their credit, came out of the halftime pause with a bit of fire, seemingly determined to make a competitive push – or at not to get blown out. This conviction, unfortunately, didn’t make it out of the third quarter.
Wyoming's lead hovered around 16 points for the first four minutes of the frame, but Utah State picked up a big spark in the form of a Johnson three-pointer – a rarity for the standout freshman center. Stubbs pulled up and hit a jumper to cut into the lead even more, and though Marta Savic put away a couple of free throws to keep the Aggies at bay, they weren’t quite done yet. Ivory Finley delivered a big play at the 3:34 mark, finishing a tough jumper through contact and completing the three-point swing at the free-throw line, bring Utah State within 10 points.
That sudden burst of quality nearly carried over to the other end of the floor as the Aggies forced a missed jumper for Tess Barnes and fought for the rebound, but a tie-up kept the ball with the Pokes, who took advantage of their second chance with a crushing three-pointer from Ola Ustowska.
When Macy Smith knocked in a pair of free throws, cutting the deficit back to 11 points, Utah State generated another miss on the defensive end – this time with a Johnson block – but again couldn't collect the rebound, leaving the door open for another Wyoming try. This one also went begging, to no avail for the Aggies as Stubbs couldn't convert a tricky layup on the other end, and Pedersen all but crushed the brief comeback bid as she drilled a triple in response. Savic rattled home a free throw and gave Wyoming a comfortable 48-33 edge heading into the fourth quarter, which Barnes immediately expanded from beyond the arc.
It was star center Allyson Fertig who put the game away for good, stepping into a prominent role in the final period after what had been a fairly quiet performance. She logged seven points, three rebounds, one block and a steal in just under seven minutes of action during the last stanza, pushing Wyoming into a 22-point lead before checking out. McKenna made it 24 with a pair of free throws at the 3:19 mark.
Utah State cut into the lead late in the game, scoring the final nine points of the evening, but still wound up with a 15-point road loss.
The story of this defeat, as has been the story of so many this season, is that Utah State cannot keep pace in MWC play without Stubbs leading the charge offensively. The Aggies are without explosive scoring threats beyond her, and they simply haven’t found their way around that. When Stubbs is at her best, there are players that can play off of her really nicely – Finley, Johnson, Smith, Suguturaga, Isabella Tañedo and others all seem capable of helping Stubbs get the Aggies to victory (although it hasn’t happened very often this season) when she's on.
But, nobody can replace the high-scoring junior. She's one of the best guards in the MWC, and when opposing defenses can slow her down, Utah State runs out of options. Stubbs ended the night with 10 points, four rebounds and two steals, shooting 3 of 11 from the field, 1 of 3 from behind the arc and 3 of 4 at the stripe. She also had a team-high of five turnovers.
Stepping up to lead the Aggie offense in her stead was Suguturaga. She tied her season-high with 12 points, plus two rebounds and a steal. She was solid from the field, shooting 5 of 9 from the field and 2 of 4 from three, but that's more offensive volume than she's accustomed to, and it took away from her work as a defender and rebounder.
Smith found herself back in the starting lineup and pitched in 10 points, three rebounds and a steal despite a rough go of it from the field, shooting 2 of 6 and, for the first time in five games, coming up empty from beyond the arc. After leading the scoring in Utah State's previous contest, Finley had a quiet night. She notched seven points, two rebounds and three assists, though she did well to avoid turnovers (and was the lone starter to do so) while picking up only two fouls.
Johnson, bolstered by her first career three-pointer, logged five points, six rebounds and five blocks. Her defense continues to be unlike anything else this team can offer, but her youth is still very much apparent. She had five fouls, limiting her time on the floor to a tick under 17 minutes.
After three consecutive rematches, Utah State will face Air Force for the first time this season, back in the Spectrum on Saturday afternoon. The Falcons are 11-13 (4-7) on the year, sitting at No. 8 in the MWC standings.
Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.