A whole new season began Thursday night for the Utah State men’s basketball team.
Having lost starters and captains Preston Medlin and Kyisean Reed a week ago, the Aggies were down to eight players who have seen any action this season. They put up a fight in a physical Western Athletic Conference game at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum against UT Arlington. In the end, however, the Mavericks made enough plays down the stretch for a 74-68 win in front of 7,229 fans.
It was the third straight loss for the Aggies (14-4, 5-3 WAC). UTA (9-8, 4-4) snapped a two-game skid and is now 7-2 on the road this season.
“We tried hard,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said. “We were just a few plays away from having a chance to win. We’ve just got to keep fighting.
“We’re not looking for excuses. We had lots of chances. We took a couple of bad shots. We had a lot of opportunities around the basket that we couldn’t finish. We turned the ball over too many times and had trouble with their ball-screen defense.”
USU won the battle on the boards, 41-36, but had 17 turnovers.
Spencer Butterfield, who had a monster game for the Aggies with career- and game-bests in points (23) and rebounds (11), drilled a 3-pointer to knot the game at 48-48 with 10:51 to play. It would be nearly five minutes before USU would score another field goal. Butterfield’s fourth trey of the night came at the 5:58 mark.
“I still need to get a lot better,” Butterfield said.
After the trey by Butterfield, the Aggies went another four minutes without a field goal. This time a 3-pointer by Ben Clifford ended the drought.
“We’re trying to not be frustrated,” said Clifford, who matched his career-high marks for points (12), rebounds (9) and blocks (4) in the game. “... Arlington did a great job defensively. We just need to have guys step up and make shots, and we will.”
Meanwhile, the Mavericks put together mini runs of 8-3 and 6-0 to stay in front. A pair of free throws by Shaq White-Miller gave the visitors their largest lead of the game, 68-59, with 2:16 to play.
Clifford’s trey and a layup by Marcel Davis got USU within 70-66 with 1:14 left in the game. Jared Stone again pulled the Aggies within four with a bucket with 57 seconds to play. But a turnover, five missed shots and two missed free throws in the final 31.5 seconds prevented USU was catching the Mavericks.
“We just can’t be satisfied with playing close, because we’re playing with a little bit of a skeleton crew,” Morrill said. “... We had some guys play about as hard as they can play. Other guys, I would like to see play harder. I’m not going to be specific, that’s team business. We need everybody to play as hard as they possibly can play.”
“We played hard; I was really proud of our guys,” Butterfield said. “... We just made some mistakes and mental errors down the stretch. We’ve just got to keep playing hard and getting better, come to practice ready to go.”
With limited numbers now, the Aggies got into foul trouble in the second half of a very physical game, which drew loud boos from the crowd on several occasions. Each team was whistled for 24 fouls. USU went 18 of 27 from the foul line, while UTA made 25 of 34. The Aggies had six possessions in the second half where they hit just one or missed both free throws.
Jarred Shaw fouled out with 2:05 to play, scoring nine points. Clifford, Butterfield and Davis finished the game with four fouls each.
“The foul trouble made it tough,” Butterfield said. “We only had four guys rotating between the point guard and wing, so we need to be careful with that.”
Marvin Jean joined Butterfield and Clifford in double-figure scoring with 11.
The Mavericks were led by Karol Gruszecki with 14 points. Cameron Catlett and Brandon Edwards added 13 points each, while Shaq White-Miller had 11 and Greg Gainey added 10.
“I am really proud of our guys; they came into a tough environment and they bounced back and kept battling,” UTA head coach Scott Cross said. “We finally got our defensive intensity back. ... The guys got after it tonight, and we are just very fortunate to come away with the win.”
The Aggies jumped out to a quick 4-0 lead to start the game, but the Mavericks quickly answered with a 8-3 surge. It would be the first of five lead changes over first 20 minutes. There were also five ties.
USU then put together a 7-0 stretch to get back on top, 14-8, with 13:30 left in the first half. Then the Aggies hit a rough patch, turning the ball over five straight times — the final one on a physical play, which really upset Morrill, who was then assessed a technical.
White-Miller made both free throws and a few minutes later the Mavericks would go on a 10-0 run to take a 25-18 lead with 6:56 before intermission.
The feisty Aggies battled back. Butterfield hit a long jumper to spark a 8-1 run. He also nailed a 3-pointer to knot-up the game at 26-26 with four minutes to before halftime.
It would stay tied at the break, 33-33.
Both teams hit their first three shots to start the second half. The Aggies then started to struggle to find the bottom of the net. Their last lead was at 41-40 with 17:32 to play.
“We fought hard and got beat,” Morrill said. “On to the next one.”