RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Utah State carried an eight-point lead at the half and a six-point lead with 1:20 left in the third quarter, but couldn’t hold off Matehya Bryant and the Highlanders of UC Riverside as they stormed back to claim a 52-51 victory at home.
Utah State falls to 2-3 on the season and is now behind in the all-time series against UC Riverside, 5-4. The Highlanders, meanwhile, picked up their second win of the season and are now 2-3.
UC Riverside won despite being largely without the services of point guard RyAnne Walters on Wednesday evening, who left the game early in the second quarter with an injury. Walters leads the team with 6.0 assists a game while averaging 4.3 points and rebounds.
The Aggies started strong, shooting 38.5 percent from the field and hitting all five of their free throws in the first quarter, closing the frame on an 11-4 run and claiming a 15-9 lead over a UC Riverside squad that shot just 23.1 percent from the field in the quarter.
Utah State continued to roll throughout the second quarter, once again holding the Riverhawks to just nine points while shooting 40 percent from the field and putting up another perfect frame from the free-throw line, carrying the largest lead of the night, 26-18, into the half.
Until the 3:54 mark in the third quarter, Utah State's defense continued to give the Highlanders fits. They made just 10 of their first 37 field goals for the game (27.0 percent), but that changed when Esther Matarranz found Jordan Webster for a layup. UCR hit its last five shots of the quarter and scored 12 points in the final 3:54, and by the end of the third quarter, Utah State’s lead had decayed to just two points, 41-39.
The Highlanders hadn’t led since a brief 5-4 advantage early in the first quarter, but coming into the fourth, they held all the momentum.
And Bryant, apparently, was just getting started. She had already logged 13 points through the first three quarters, and added six more in the first 2:17 of the final frame to vault the Highlanders from a two-point deficit into a four-point lead. Webster hit a free throw to make it 11 unanswered points before Samiana Suguturaga found a layup for the Aggies to stop the bleeding. With 5:56 left in the game, Utah State trailed 46-43.
The Highlanders maintained a slim lead until a pair of Skye Miller free throws tied the game back up at 48 with 2:54 remaining, but UC Riverside responded right back with its own pair at the stripe, coming from Webster at the 2:14 mark.
Notable through this dry spell was the absence of Cheyenne Stubbs, Utah State’s leading scorer who spent nearly five full minutes on the bench during the fourth quarter before checking back in after Webster's tries at the line.
Facing another two-point deficit, Miller again knotted with a layup on an assist from Allyzee Verdan and the clock reading 1:18. On the other end, the Aggies got a stop, Stubbs pulled down the rebound and Suguturaga earned a trip to the line with a game tied at 50 and only 27 seconds remaining. She hit the front end, giving the Aggies a one-point lead, but when she missed her second shot, Bryant came down with the ball – her 15th rebound of the game.
Out of a timeout, UC Riverside took the game clock all the way down to six seconds before Webster knocked down a tough jumper to reclaim the advantage, 52-51. Utah State still had two chances, despite the lack of time on the clock, but came up short on both occasions. Free throw woes came at the worst time for Miller, who missed both attempts after a foul on Bryant, but the rebound got away from the Highlanders and Utah State maintained possession with four seconds to play. Head coach Kayla Ard called a timeout to draw up a play that could overcome UC Riverside's slim 52-51 advantage.
That play never materialized. Julia Stenberg intercepted the inbound pass and bobbled it to Bryant, who secured the ball and ended the game with just a couple of dribbles down the floor – snapping a budding two-game win streak for the Aggies.
Utah State shot well (41.3 percent) and forced a lot of turnovers (14), although they also had a few too many turnovers themselves (16), struggled from three-point range (1 of 8) and failed to get their scorers involved. The Aggies were efficient down the stretch when they put shots up, but they managed only six field goal attempts in the final frame. Shooting efficiency from the field is not the issue this team faces on the offensive side of the ball.
Three-point shooting, however, is becoming a serious concern. Utah State had another unsustainably poor shooting night from the perimeter, despite hitting 47.4 percent of its two-point tries. The team’s shooting efficiency just does not seem to extend beyond the three-point line. They're capable in the paint, scoring 30 points to UC Riverside's 26, but they shot 12-20 from the free-throw stripe and took nine fewer shots than the Highlanders. That's not usually a winning formula.
Part of what makes the lack of three-point shooting so puzzling is the presence of shooters on this team. Ivory Finley has hit the deep ball as reliably as anyone on this team, but was nearly invisible against the Highlanders, despite UCR’s propensity for giving up high shooting percentages from deep. Finley leads the team with five hits from deep this season, and after winning back-to-back games with Finley playing a large role in the offense, Utah State could not find a way to get her involved on Wednesday. She ended the night with zero points on 0-of-6 shooting.
Stubbs and Miller were both involved, and Bridget Mullings had another great game after having quiet performances in the past few games, but the offensive production outside of that was not quite enough. Stubbs led the way with 15 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals; Miller added 10 points, four rebounds and two steals; and Mullings finished with 10 points, four rebounds, one assist and a steal. The seven remaining Aggies combined for 16 points on 7-of-21 shooting.
On the other end, though Utah State held UC Riverside to 38.2 percent shooting from the field and 2 of 17 from deep, the Aggies could not reliably answer for the star pairing of Bryant and Webster. They combined for 34 points, 18 rebounds, five assists, five steals and two blocks, shooting 13-of-23 from the field and 8 of 10 at the stripe.
Utah State is back in action on Nov. 29, looking to return to the win column against Idaho in the Spectrum. The Vandals are no pushovers. They're 3-1 on the season, winning a pair of games over Cal State Fullerton and Hawaii at the Bank of Hawaii Classic earlier this month. They finished sixth in the Big Sky last season, falling against third-seeded Sacramento State, the eventual champions, in the conference tournament.
Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.