Kragthorpe: Utah State basketball can't overcome absence of stars
The ball bounced twice on the rim, as if to consider the possibilities.
If forward Ben Clifford's 3-point try had eventually found the net Saturday night, Utah State would have forced overtime against Louisiana Tech with an opportunity for an improbable victory.
Instead, the ball fell off the rim, Clifford's perfectly awful shooting percentage remained intact and the Aggies suffered a disheartening 51-48 loss to the Western Athletic Conference's best team at the Smith Spectrum.
Saying the Aggies deserved to win would be a stretch, considering they shot 27 percent from the field for the game and committed 10 turnovers by halftime, when they trailed 35-22. Yet they somehow gave themselves a chance, under dire circumstances.
Afterward, USU coach Stew Morrill helpfully provided the story angle, observing how Raheem Appleby, Tech's All-WAC guard, drilled the winning 3-pointer from the right wing with 1:23 remaining in a tie game. And, Morrill added, "Our first-team All-WAC player's got a cast on his hand."
Citing that injury to Preston Medlin was as close as Morrill would come to making excuses, but they're certainly available. The Aggies are playing without Medlin and forward Kyisean Reed, their top two scorers. Mix in forward Danny Berger's heart condition and prior injuries to Brady Jardine and Sean Harris, and the program is basically missing an entire lineup.
"They're still the Utah State that has dominated the WAC for a lot of years," said Tech coach Michael White.
Uh, not exactly. Yet there's some macabre fascination in how this season will play out for USU.
Before losing two home games this week, Morrill sounded more bemused than frustrated about the state of the Aggies. He told a story from his Colorado State days, facing a Texas-El Paso team coached by Don Haskins with only six players dressed. "It was one of the dangdest things I have ever seen, looking over at that bench," Morrill said. "He had six guys and damn near beat us."
Saturday, Morrill used all of his eight scholarship players, and almost beat the Bulldogs. With only a tiny bit more help for center Jarred Shaw (21 points, 14 rebounds) and guard Spencer Butterfield (16 points, 15 boards), USU could have pulled off the upset. The other starters went a combined 0 for 20 from the field - with Clifford's final miss making him 0 for 9.
And yet Clifford got a good look and almost delivered at the end of what Morrill labeled "kind of a mad scramble," the sequence that ensued when he chose not to call a timeout and let Tech's defense get set.
That was sensible strategy, considering how tough it was for either team to run its offense in the second half. The Bulldogs were 4 for 25 until Appleby's winning shot, and USU was not much better.
So the Aggies are 14-5 overall and 5-4 in the WAC, records that seemed unimaginable before USU visited New Mexico State. But in the late stages of a defeat, Medlin (wrist) and Reed (knee) went down and USU's struggle commenced.
"We're not piecing it together well right now," Morrill said, having lost four straight games for the first time in his 15 seasons in Logan.
The question is how bad this season might become, after the third 14-1 start in the program's history. USU needs only seven more wins to reach 1,500 all-time, but they won't come easily.
"Don't give up on this team yet," Butterfield said. "We're going to be doing some good things coming up I can feel it."
That belief will have to suffice, in the absence of much evidence.