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Aggies determined to weather challenge

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Jerry Finkbeiner. Courtesy Utah State University

By Kyle Goon

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Feb 06 2014 10:00PM
Updated Feb 6, 2014 11:15PM

Logan • It’s a nice, round number: 500.

It seems almost surreal to Utah State women’s basketball coach Jerry Finkbeiner that he could have that many wins under his belt. But the milestone arrived a few weeks ago, as the Aggies topped San Jose State, 78-65, on Jan. 4 on the road. His players and his school were appropriately excited for him.

But as Finkbeiner soon found out, win No. 501 would be much more difficult. In fact, it took him and his Aggies six tries to get it three weeks later.

In his 25th season of coaching, Finkbeiner knows that once you pass a milestone, there’s always another one ahead. And in his second year at Utah State and the program’s first season in the Mountain West, they’ve been a lot harder to reach.

"I’ve had more challenging years, to be sure," he said. "But this league has got to be the toughest I’ve ever coached in. I’ve learned I’ve got to push myself as hard as these ladies, I’ve got to coach harder."

Prior to the season, Finkbeiner predicted his second year would be "a journey," and it has been. Utah State is 10-11, with a 4-6 conference record.

The Aggies have played a lot of younger athletes while leaning on senior guard Jen Schlott to put up as many as 35, 38 or even 44 points on a given night. Some of the struggles can be attributed to bad luck: The Aggies have been playing without Makenlee Williams, the team’s other sharpshooter who was averaging more than 18 points per game, since she went out with an injury early in the season.

At their best, Utah State knocked off the rival Utes. But among the lowlights is a loss to the College of Idaho, and NAIA program.

Finkbeiner and his team have worked hard to right the inconsistencies that have dogged this year’s team. But perhaps the biggest battle has been helping his team keep faith, and the players say he’s winning it.

"He loves the game, and that’s what keeps him positive all the time," Schlott said. "I think the thing he’s showed us is a lot of these games we’ve lost because of things we’ve done, not the teams we’ve played. We can hang. We have the power to turn this around."

Finkbeiner is almost relentlessly optimistic, a man who is pleasant almost to a fault. His positive attitude helped convince Cristal Turner, an English prospect, to join his program at Oral Roberts. Having grown accustomed to his coaching style, she joined him in Logan when he took a new job. He’s the kind of coach who can pull the ray of sunshine out of the rainstorm, she said. And he knows when to let his players decompress by taking them out for paintball or another equally stress-relieving activity.

"When we lose, he turns our focus right to the next game," Turner said. "If we go into the conference tournament as a lower seed, he wants us to be ready to get the upset. He wants us to be David against Goliath."

Only two games seperate No. 8 Utah State from the tie for No. 4, so there’s room for the Aggies to move up. Finkbeiner has met some of the program’s goals: They’re the highest-scoring team in the Mountain West, and their shooting percentages and shooting percentage defense are in the upper half.

Finkbeiner has a vision of creating a program that can outscore any team, that can unload fastbreaks and 3-pointers before an opponent knows what hit them. As his Aggies get closer to that vision, he said, the wins will come.

And his players seem patient for that moment.

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