LOGAN — Utah State trailed by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter, and although a late comeback effort fell short, the Aggies had a lot going for them down the stretch. Even without a stellar performance from their star player, Cheyenne Stubbs, the Aggies managed to make Wyoming work for it in a 54-48 loss to the Pokes in Utah State's Mountain West home opener.
Head coach Kayla Ard felt good about the team's effort and performance in the game, even in a loss.
“I think this is the first game where the game finished and I feel like we played for 40 minutes," Ard said. "It's the first game I felt like we put it together from the beginning to end. Did we win? No. Did we get a lot better today? Absolutely. I thought our kids bought into the game plan and executed (it)… I thought our effort and our lock-in and our execution on the game plan was so good.”
Though she had plenty of good to say about her team's performance, Ard would immediately pinpoint the key flaw of the game.
“It would have been really helpful if we could have hit some more of our threes tonight. It would have been a different ball game,” said Ard.
She’s not wrong. The team missed 14 threes on 18 tries, and went 2 of 11 from beyond the arc in second half in a defensive battle. Utah State was competitive, which was one of the team's chief goals coming into the season, but needed just a few more of those shots to fall to flip the result and snap a losing streak that now stands at seven games.
“I was really proud of the effort that was out there. We never gave up. We kept competing.” Ard said.
With the loss the Aggies are now 0-2 in conference play, but it doesn’t seem to bother coach Ard much.
“It's not the greatest draw for us coming out of Christmas break,” Ard said, acknowledging the steep competition the Aggies have been forced to play to open the conference slate, drawing two of the top teams in the league. “But, it is what it is.
"UNLV is obviously the favorite, and Wyoming is a really good team that was picked really high. It's a really well-coached and disciplined team, and they play really hard… Look what our kids did tonight. They competed. If they can hold onto that and not look at just the win/loss, I think we can keep getting better. We’re getting better and we just have to keep growing. I was really proud of our kids tonight, and I would love to have won, yes, but I was really proud of our effort.”
The game started with a six-point Wyoming lead before Tiairra Hill-Brown got the Aggies on the board with a three-point bucket. Wyoming fought back to a six-point lead, but it was erased by back-to-back jumpers from Stubbs (from deep) and Macy Smith, followed by two Samiana Suguturaga layups. The two battled back and forth through the end of the period, and Utah State narrowly missed out on taking a lead into the second quarter when Wyoming sharpshooter Tess Barnes buried a deep ball to even the score at 16.
It remained competitive early in the second before the Pokes put some distance between themselves and the Aggies. Wyoming’s Emily Mellema drove to the hoop and broke the tie, but another midrange score from Smith tied it right back up. For the rest of the half, Utah State was outscored 14-8, trailing 32-26 at the break.
Once again, Utah State relied on its freshman trio for big minutes and was rewarded with some solid results. In the first half alone, Lauren Crocker drew seven minutes and scored two points, Gracie Johnson, already having the most impactful night of her career, had played seven minutes and four points to show for it, and Ali Wetta took four minutes with one rebound.
It was also clear, however, that unless the Aggies could find a way to get their leader more involved, they would be in for a tough second half. Stubbs only had five points at the halfway mark, which was the team-high, but they would need more from her to emerge with a win in a very competitive game.
The third quarter was a low-scoring endeavor on all accounts, and the Aggies were in serious danger of playing an entire quarter without finding the net. They didn’t until Johnson got a jumper to go with 2:20 remaining in the frame. The only thing that kept the game from getting entirely away from Utah State was the fact that Wyoming was having similar struggles. To that point, the Cowgirls had only hit three shots in the quarter, two of which were from Fertig. By the end of the quarter. Utah State had scored only six points while Wyoming grabbed eight, growing the lead to 40-32.
Wyoming opened the last frame with an 11-4 run, claiming a 51-38 lead, the largest of the night. This is when Utah State showed off that competitive spirit it's been fine-tuning all year. Back-to-back threes from Skye Miller and Smith got the Aggies within seven, and Smith struck again with a steal that she turned into a layup on the other end.
The Aggies were unable to get over the five-point deficit, however. With less than 30 seconds to play, the teams traded a pair of free throws and Wyoming’s Maren McKenna – a native of Cache Valley – knocked down a free throw to bring the game to its final score of 54-48.
There's plenty to take from this result, but chief among them is the success of those aforementioned freshmen. For the second consecutive game, they were expected to step up. Once again, they did so – Crocker finished with two points and a board in just under 11 minutes, Johnson had eight points, five rebounds and three blocks in 18:09, and Wetta finished with two points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals in 13:33.
“I love those kids," Ard said. "They are fun to coach, they want to be coached, they’re proud to be here, they’re proud to be Utah State Aggies, and I love that about them. And they work hard. Those kids are in the gym all the time. I get up to the office and they're in there shooting. Ali and Lauren, we can’t get them out of there.
"Gracie was actually (injured), she hurt her ankle early on and was in a boot for two months, so you can imagine where she would be had she not missed that time. We're really excited about her, and she’s getting back to where she was before. I'm so excited about those kids... that's a great foundation, and look at the minutes they're getting. It's awesome.”
For the game, Smith led the way for Utah State with nine points, and seems to have found a groove, averaging 10.3 points in her last three games. She also recorded three rebounds, three assists and a steal. After her 30-point night against UNLV, Stubbs had a quiet game. She didn’t score in the second half and ended the night with five points and four rebounds. Suguturaga had six points, three rebounds and two blocks.
After facing the top of the class in UNLV and Wyoming, Utah State will look to pick up its first conference win in a Saturday matinee at the Spectrum against San Jose State. The Spartans are 5-8 (0-1) coming off a tough loss to Fresno State on their home court, surrendering a nine-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.