A strong second half was just what Utah State needed to keep its winning streak alive.
The Aggies won their seventh in a row Friday night during the second game on the second night of the World Vision Basketball Challenge, sponsored by Gossner Foods Inc. In a battle of Aggies, USU came out on top 73-61 in front of 7,781 fans.
“Unlike last night, there were some very positive things in the second half,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said. “We were having a heck of a time guarding them in the first half. They were scoring at will, and we were giving up transition baskets. In the second half, we held them to 7 for 21 and stopped the break a little bit. That was a big thing for us.”
UC Davis (3-7) did a good job pestering the USU big men and got out and scored some easy layups on the break in the first half. The Aggies (8-1) from Logan got scoring production from the perimeter and that proved to be the difference.
“They really emphasized not letting our posts do well tonight,” USU guard Preston Medlin said. “They did all they could to stop our posts. ... So the guards had to help out.”
Medlin certainly did his part, scoring a season- and game-best 23 points. He was 9 of 17 from the field.
“I was just trying to get into a rhythm, and I felt like in the second half that I came out and shot the ball fairly well,” Medlin said. “... I was trying to be very aggressive tonight and that is something that I have been needing to do.”
Trailing 41-39 early in the second half, Medlin drilled a 3-pointer. A few minutes later he scored eight straight points for USU, including two more treys.
“(Medlin) got feeling it in the second half,” Morrill said. “We ran two OB (out of bounds) plays for him and he hit threes on those.”
Spencer Butterfield, who matched his career-best mark of 14 points, capped a 15-4 run with a 3-pointer, and USU opened a 61-50 lead midway through the second half. The host Aggies would lead by double digits most of the way from there. Butterfield gave USU its largest lead of the game, 73-59, with a pair of free throws with 1:13 to play.
“(Butterfield) is learning some things,” Morrill said. “One thing you know is he is going to play hard and battle. ... You can count on him hitting a big shot and you can count on him being tough.”
With the USU big men drawing so much attention, the outside shot was open. USU hit a season-high 12 3-pointers on the night and finished with a better percentage from beyond the arc than overall, 54.5 percent to 42.4 percent.
“I was just able to knock down some shots,” said USU guard TeNale Roland, who had a career-high 11 points off the bench, including two 3-pointers. “I hit the first one and it got me hot and I was able to hit a couple of more. ... It was a good night (shooting 3-pointers). They were doubling down on the post, so we were wide open.”
After shooting 55 percent from the field, UC Davis struggled in the second half. The Aggies from California, who had a two-game winning streak snapped, were led by Ryan Sypkens with 12 points, while Corey Hawkins and Clint Bozner added 11 each.
“I thought we did some really good things in the first half,” UCD head coach Jim Les said. “We battled. We did more than hold our own on the boards.
“... I thought the problem in the second half was partially due to missing some big shots. We took that disappointment right to the defensive end. We just weren’t quite as sharp on the 50-50 balls, the second-chance points.”
The visiting Aggies jumped out to a 5-0 lead to begin the game. The host Aggies responded with a 15-2 run. Butterfield sparked the surge with a 3-pointer, and Medlin and Marvin Jean drilled treys to finish it off and give USU a 15-7 lead with 13:58 left in the first half.
Just when it looked like USU was going to pull away, UCD roared back. USU went more than four minutes without scoring while the visitors went on a 15-0 run to take a 22-15 lead with 10:23 left in the opening half.
Once again Butterfield got his Aggies going, sinking back-to-back 3-pointers. Roland followed those with a pair of treys, too, and USU went back in front, 29-26.
Jean hit the eighth 3-pointer of the first half for USU, giving the hosts a 38-30 lead with 3:15 before intermission.
“We had a lot of guys off the bench that did a nice job — Marvin , TeNale and Ben (Clifford),” Morrill said. “Those guys did a good job.”
However, UCD used a 10-1 run to take a 40-39 lead at the break. USU did not make a field goal after the Jean trey before halftime.
The Aggies from Utah shook that off and put together a strong second half.
“We took a step forward,” Morrill said. “I have been criticizing our team to you guys quite a bit, and I thought that we took a step forward tonight. ... That is a good, solid win for us. I like UC Davis’ team.”
UC Davis will take on Nicholls State (1-7) tonight in the first game on the final day of the tournament. USU will face Southern Illinois (7-3).