After four home games — six counting two exhibition contests — the Aggie men’s basketball team is venturing outside of the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Utah State (3-1) takes on Santa Clara (5-0) in California on Wednesday night.
“We’ve had four home games, so it’s time to go on the road,” Aggie head coach Stew Morrill said. “We’re going to play a very good Santa Clara team and then a very good BYU team. ... That will be a big challenge, but it will be fun. We are looking forward to it.”
USU is coming off a hard-fought 65-55 win over Weber State last Saturday night. The lead changed hands or was tied a combined 40 times. The game was tied with less than four-and-a-half minutes to play, then USU scored six unanswered points and outscored the Wildcats 12-1 to seal the victory.
A season ago the Aggies dropped 12 games by eight points or less. Being able to hang in there against Weber State was encouraging for USU, especially with so many new players.
“Last year we couldn’t really finish the close games,” said Aggie guard Preston Medlin, who finished with a game-high 17 points and also grabbed nine rebounds. “I felt we did that against a good Weber State team. That’s good for us and hopefully it will carry some momentum into the season.”
While USU continues to find some consistency on the offensive end and improve defensively, the Aggies have been hitting the boards with gusto. Through the first four games, USU is outrebounding its opponents on average by 13.75.
“Double digits is really good,” Morrill said. “If we can keep that up, that keeps you in a lot of games. We’ve got a lot of guys hunting rebounds, and we’ve got some athleticism and size.”
Leading the way on the glass is center Jarred Shaw. The big man is averaging 10.75 per game. Kyisean Reed is grabbing 6.5 a game, and Medlin is third on the team with 5.25.
“We were just being physical and kept fighting,” Shaw said of the rebounding.
Against the Wildcats, the Aggies made just 1 of 5 3-point shots. Morrill said after the game that he wants to see more 3-point shots attempted and obviously made.
Weber State was keeping a close eye on USU around the 3-point line, which enabled the Aggies to drive and go inside. That also led to a season-high 32 free throw attempts by USU. The Aggies made 22 after starting the game 3 of 10 from the foul line.
“They did a good job (taking away the 3-point shot); they were very spread out,” Medlin said. “We got to the line a lot because we driving a lot. We really couldn’t get open threes. It was good for us to get the line.”
Ben Clifford came off the bench to spark USU in the second half and did a good job at the foul line. In fact, when the Aggies made seven straight free throws, Clifford sank five of those. He finished 7 of 8 from the line and had 11 points.
“We really need some bench production, and it was good to see (Clifford) do that; he did a great job getting to the line,” Morrill said. “We were struggling making free throws, and I think that got us over the hump a little bit. He made a few and it got a little bit contagious and we finally made some.”
The Aggie coach also praised the play of Shaw and Medlin against Weber State.
“Preston had an awfully good game, and Jarred made a big difference,” Morrill said.
Also worth noting was how USU held Weber State to 34 percent shooting from the field and 23.1 percent from 3-point range (3 of 13).
“We’ve been harping about defense,” Morrill said. “We feel like if we can hold people under 40 percent from the floor and under 30 (percent) from three, that gives you a chance to be awfully good. We shoot for that and got both (against the Wildcats). ... I thought our defense was solid.”
Now the Aggies will try and build on that on the road.