PROVO – Utah State entered the Marriott Center as 30-plus point underdogs, and came within just a few points of handing BYU its third loss in a row, falling short by only six points, 72-66. The loss drops Utah State to 3-5 on the season ahead of another in-state road trip to Utah Valley this weekend, while BYU jumps to 7-2 for the year.
The Aggies trailed by as many as 16 points with 6:21 left in the third quarter, but stormed back in the game's final 16 minutes and pushed a very solid BYU team to the final whistle. They never managed to overtake to Cougars down the stretch, but they spent nearly the entire final stanza of the contest within two possessions of the home team in a performance that rivals the best Utah State has produced in this still-young season.
Early on, Utah State didn't look up to the task. The game's opening minutes unfolded about as expected, with BYU riding a Lauren Gustin blitz out of the gate. She scored eight points and grabbed two rebounds in a 10-0 run BYU run across the first 3:18 of play.
The Aggies finally got on the board with a quick four points from Cheyenne Stubbs, splitting two trips to the line and hitting a layup. Ivory Finley and Allyzee Verdan both added one free throw, and Skye Miller knocked down a layup to give the Aggies an 8-2 run in the middle of the quarter, pulling them within six points, 14-8. BYU got the last laugh of the opening frame, though, closing it out with two three-pointers to take a commanding 20-8 edge.
It extended that lead to open the second quarter with a pair of Emma Calvert free throws, claiming a 14-point edge – its largest of the half – at 22-8. The teams traded points across the ensuing six minutes, and at the 3:20 mark, Kaylee Smiler knocked down a three-pointer to give BYU a 31-20 edge that it looked primed to carry into the break.
Utah State had other plans. Back-to-back threes from Finley and Macy Smith brought the Aggies within five only 1:06 later, 31-26, and though they would cede some of that ground before the quarter ended, those quick six points gave the Aggies a lot of momentum. At the break, the Aggies trailed by 10 points, 39-29. Given that BYU had shot 48.4 percent from the field with seven more attempts (31 to 24) and that it had won the rebounding battle 27-15, that was a margin Utah State could live with.
A slow start to the second half was not what the Aggies had hoped for. With 6:21 left in the third quarter, Calvert hit a fast break layup to give the Cougars their largest lead of the night, 45-29. Utah State was held scoreless in the first four minutes of the third quarter, and though BYU's scoring was not exactly an onslaught, the Cougars didn't have a high bar to clear as they worked to extend their advantage.
Finally, the Aggies found their way back into the fight. Miller hit a tough two-pointer, Finley knocked down a three, Stubbs drained a pair of free throws and Samiana Sutuguraga capped off a 9-0 run with a bucket to bring Utah State within seven points, 45-38, with 3:28 remaining in the quarter.
BYU answered with two Calvert free throws, but Utah State's offense was rolling. Stubbs knocked down a mid-range jumper to match the free throws and drained a three on Utah State's next series to answer a Gustin layup and pull within six, and Verdan closed out the quarter with a shot in the paint after one free throw from Calvert. Utah State had pulled itself back from the brink, and trailed by only five points with a quarter to play, 50-45.
Smiler opened the scoring with another big three, though that eight-point edge would not hold for long. Verdan scored again to cut the margin back down to six, and Finley converted a three-point play to pull Utah State within three, 53-50, at the 7:38 mark of the final frame. It was the closest the game had been since its opening seconds.
That was as close as Utah State would come to the lead. Kailey Woolston and Amari Whiting scored on consecutive possessions to push back ahead by seven with 5:38 to go. The Aggies kept fighting, drawing back within three after a Stubbs triple and a free throw from Bridget Mullings, but they just couldn’t overcome that last deficit. They were outscored by three points, 15-12, in the game's final 4:33 as the turnover bug reared its head and Utah State lost five of its last 13 possession to error.
Even in a losing effort, there are plenty of positives for Utah State to take away from this game. The Aggies finally found their stroke from deep and bested a very dangerous core of BYU shooters from behind the arc, hitting 7 of 19 tries while the Cougars shot just 5 of 18 from deep.
The Aggies forced BYU into possibly its sloppiest game of the year, too, benefitting from 20 Cougar turnovers and narrowly winning that battle (USU had 16, with five coming in the final 4:33 of the game). They came up short in the rebounding battle, though not by as much as you might expect, falling 41-34.
Perhaps the biggest issue on that front, and on all fronts, was the presence of Gustin. She shot 8 of 15 from the field (which is among her lower shooting percentages of the year) and had a rough night from the line (5 of 13), but she still had 21 points, 21 rebounds and two assists. Utah State turned her over five times and forced her into foul trouble as she finished the game with four, but BYU never pulled her – she played all 40 minutes.
Whiting pulled through in a big way for BYU, too, knocking down several crucial shots in the game's waning moments. She had a season-high 19 points with three assists, three steals and two rebounds, though she also picked up four fouls and logged four turnovers. Calvert came off the bench and scored 14 points in 28 minutes, while also notching eight rebounds, one assist, one steal and one block. She was the third Cougar to finish with four fouls – and somehow, Utah State still had eight more personal fouls than BYU, 30-22.
For the Aggies, the star trio of Finley, Miller and Stubbs did what they needed it to do. Stubbs had a 21-point night and added three rebounds, two assists and two steals in 36 minutes of action. Miller pitched in 10 points, seven rebounds and an assist in 26 minutes, and Finley matched that scoring output while grabbing four boards and logging one assist – she fouled out with 31 seconds to play, as did Mullings with six seconds left.
Mullings played only nine minutes and, for much of that time, was tasked with the very difficult job of guarding and rebounding against Gustin. All things considered, she fared relatively well, scoring five points and grabbing four rebounds. No one on this roster could answer for the star center, but Mullings fought hard and went out on her shield. That's the kind of competitiveness Utah State wants from its players.
In her first career start at Utah State, Macy Smith played 18 minutes, scored three points on 1-of-5 shooting from the field, and dished out an assist. She was only called for one personal foul in a game with 52 combined fouls, standing with Tiairra Hill-Brown as the only starters on either team to only have one foul. Verdan came off the bench for the Aggies and played 14 minutes, finishing as their most productive bench player with seven points, three rebounds and a steal while picking up only two personal fouls. Livia Knapp led all USU bench players with 25 minutes, though she didn't do much with them on the stat sheet, logging three fouls, two rebounds and a turnover while taking only one shot.
All told, for a team just looking for signs of progress, it was a great showing from the Aggies. They set the terms of the game offensively, largely limited turnovers, knocked down open looks and forced the Cougars to beat them. Gustin's size and talent was the difference, but Utah State played its game and lost on its own terms.
The task now for the Aggies is to build on it. They're on the road again this Saturday, playing at Utah Valley. The Wolverines are 3-5 on the season, and the opportunity for Utah State to grab a win is firmly in place. To carry that momentum into an off week ahead of a Dec. 16 home bout against Northern Colorado would be huge for the Aggies.
Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.