DENVER — When your two captains are sitting on the bench in street clothes, that’s not a good sign.
Such was the case for the Utah State men’s basketball team late Saturday afternoon at Magness Arena. The Aggies were without starting guard Preston Medlin and starting forward Kyisean Reed. Both sustained injuries on Thursday at New Mexico State that caused them to miss Saturday’s contest against Denver.
The Pioneers, who have been on a hot streak of late anyway, took full advantage of USU being short handed. Denver jumped out to a quick lead and led by double figures for most of the game, recording a 68-57 Western Athletic Conference victory in front of 2,621 fans, many of which were routing for the Aggies.
“They (Pioneers) are a good team right now,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said. “... They are playing at a really high level right now. We hung in there.”
Medlin injured his right wrist when he took a charge against NMSU in the second half. Reed hurt his left knee, which is very swollen, late in the game.
“We’ll find out more about our guys that are hurt with X-rays and MRIs,” Morrill said. “... Kyisean could not practice yesterday, and Preston was using just his left hand. That isn’t going to work.”
With Medlin and Reed out, Marvin Jean and Ben Clifford got their second starts of the season. Jean responded by leading the Aggies (14-3, 5-2 WAC) with a team- and career-high 14 points, nailing 4 of 6 from 3-point land.
“It was pretty tough seeing those guys (Medlin and Reed) go down,” Jean said. “It was tough without them tonight. I feel like we still could have got it done, but we didn’t. ... I thought we would come back, but we fell short.”
With the injuries, the Aggies had just eight players available. USU dropped its second straight after having a 13-game winning streak snapped on Thursday at NMSU.
The Aggies did show some life in the second half, having trailed 53-31 with 12:07 to play. Ben Clifford sparked a 8-1 run with a jumper, followed by a Jean 3-pointer and a three-point play by Marcel Davis.
“We fought back in the second half,” said USU center Jarred Shaw, who had 10 points and a game-best nine rebounds. “... The whole goal was to get within 10 with four minutes left. We did that, but could never get under 10.”
USU did get within 62-52 with 4:01 to play after an 11-3 surge. Once again Clifford triggered the run, taking a pass from Spencer Butterfield and scoring a layup. Jean capped it with his fourth trey of the game and a pair of free throws.
“It’s tough missing two of our leaders, but we still felt like we had a chance to win,” said Clifford, who had eight points before fouling out with 69 seconds to play. “... It took us too long to realize what we needed to do inside.”
There were several opportunities to cut the lead to less than 10, but the Aggies couldn’t capitalize.
“If we would have taken care of the ball, that was our biggest problem,” said Morrill, as the Aggies did have 15 turnovers. “... If we would have got more shots up, it might have helped a ton. And we had trouble guarding them at the end of the (shot) clock. I don’t know how many baskets they made at the end of the clock.”
That would be five when the shot clock expired with the ball in the air and several others when it was close to running out.
Butterfield and TeNale Roland chipped in nine points each for USU. The Aggies shot 47.1 percent for the game, while Denver shot 56.5 percent and had just three turnovers.
“They have 17 assists and three turnovers, and we’re 10 assists with 15 turnovers,” Morrill said. “There is the game.”
The Pioneers (11-7, 7-1), who have now won seven straight, were led by Brett Olson with a game-best 18 points. Chase Hallam had 14, Chris Udofia netted 13 and Jalen Love added 10.
The Pioneers scored the first six points and raced out to a 9-3 lead to start the game.
Another 9-3 surge gave the hosts a 23-12 lead with eight minutes left in the opening half. On three straight possessions where Denver scored, it hit a shot as the shot clock was about to expire.
“They (Pioneers) played great and made some big shots at the beginning of the game,” Clifford said. “They made some big 3-point shots with the shot clock buzzer going off. All credit to them.”
It took nearly three minutes for USU to score. Jean drilled a trey off a pass from Davis. It would be almost eight minutes before the Aggies would make another field goal, when Roland hit a 3-pointer.
The first five field goals for USU were from beyond the arc, and Roland and Butterfield were fouled taking 3-point shots. Each of them sank all three free throws to keep the Aggies in the game.
Shaw slammed down a dunk for the first non-3-point field goal with 2:01 left in the first half.
“Every time I touched the ball, there was three or four people on me,” Shaw said. “I haven’t see that this year. I will take responsibility for this one. Four turnovers is unacceptable.”
A trey by Jalen Love gave Denver its largest lead of the first half, 32-18, with 3:45 left before intermission. The Pioneers took a 36-25 lead into the break and did not have a turnover in the first 20 minutes of action.
The Aggies ended up playing Denver even in the second half.
“They (Pioneers) are a really good team,” Morrill said. “But you can’t get used to losing. We’ve lost a couple of tough road games, now we get a chance to go home and complete the first half of league. We’re going to be positive about trying to get to 7-2 in league.”