A tight game through the first 38 minutes turned into a double-digit victory for Utah State.
The Aggies made their free throws when it counted most, hit the boards once again and played stiff defense down the stretch to capture the 65th meeting against in-state rival Weber State on Saturday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, 65-55. A crowd of 8,415 witnessed the game.
“This is exactly what we expected,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said. “That’s the game we generally have with Weber State. It’s knock-down, drag-out, tough to score. I’m just glad we hung in there and found a way to grind one out.”
There were 24 lead changes and 14 ties in the game.
“You don’t want a team to score 80 points on their floor,” WSU head coach Randy Rahe said. “You want to pressure them and grind them and make things difficult. I’m proud of the way we pressured and got after them.”
Having struggled some at the free throw line — at one point USU was 3 of 10 — the Aggies (3-1) finished strong at the stripe. They made 19 of their last 22 foul shots, which were crucial at the end.
“We made some free throws,” Morrill said. “... We still need to make more. We started making some and they started missing some.”
WSU (1-2) did struggle late in the second half. During the same time span that the Aggies were hitting all of their foul shots, the Wildcats went 9 of 18.
“They made free throws and we didn’t,” Rahe said. “It wasn’t like they came out and put the pedal to the metal. It became a free throw shooting game, and we missed and they made. That was the difference in the game.”
It certainly was down the stretch.
With the game knotted at 53 with less than five minutes to play, the Aggies strung together six straight points for their largest lead of the contest up to that point. Jarred Shaw scored, followed by two foul shots from Ben Clifford and a long jumper by Kyisean Reed as the shot clock was about to expire. That momentum carried the Aggies the rest of the way.
“We kept our composure,” said Shaw, who finished with his second double-double this season with 16 points and a game-best 12 rebounds. “Everybody stepped up and made free throws when we needed to make them. That was the key and we got stops when we needed them.”
Including a big block by Shaw with less than six minutes to play.
“I was late on the screen and figured I better block it or I would get yelled at,” Shaw said. “Fortunately I blocked it.”
The Aggies made six of their final eight foul shots during the final 2:21 of the game. Meanwhile, the Wildcats were 2 of 8 down the stretch.
“(The Wildcats) were a very physical team,” said USU guard Preston Medlin, who had a game-best 17 points and made 8 of 12 free throws. “It was good we got to the line a lot and made some.”
Neither team could build much of a lead in the back-and-forth contest. The Wildcats’ largest advantage was 15-10 in the first half. The Aggies were up 11 with 24.7 seconds to play.
“Hopefully this will carry some momentum for us the rest of the season,” Medlin said. “Weber is a good team.”
But once again the Aggie defense did enough to get some crucial stops. It was also big that USU won the rebounding battle by double digits, 43-30.
“That (rebounding) is our best stat right now,” Morrill said. “Offensively, we’re a little inconsistent, defensively, we’re a little inconsistent. Rebounding-wise, we’ve been good. We’ve got a lot of guys hunting rebounds.”
Besides Shaw, Medlin and Reed came up big on the boards for USU. Medlin tied his career-high mark with nine rebounds. Reed grabbed seven.
The Aggies shot 45.7 percent from the field for the game, but made just 1 of 5 from 3-point range. The Wildcats shot 34 percent from the field and were even worse from 3-point land, making 3 of 13.
“Coach emphasized they are a good 3-point shooting team, which they are,” Medlin said. “It was good for us to only allow them three threes, which is big time. I think that really helped us win the game.”
Joining Medlin and Shaw in double-figure scoring was Ben Clifford. He came off the bench to net 11 points and grab four rebounds.
“I was pleased with Ben Clifford coming off the bench,” Morrill said. “He hadn’t gotten very many minutes, but got the opportunity and responded.”
Clifford played 14 minutes.
“I thought we played fairly well tonight, especially down the stretch of the second half when we were able to make the plays to close them out,” Clifford said.
The Wildcats were led by Davion Berry with 11 points.
Shaw scored the first points of the game, but the Wildcats answered right back. It was a sign of things to come as there were eight ties and 11 lead changes over the first 20 minutes.
It was 28-28 at halftime.