Albuquerque, N.M. • There have been times this year when the silver lining has been faint, if visible at all. Mostly, the latter part of Utah State’s season has been storms rolling in, one after another.
But the Aggies (15-13, 5-11) weren’t hanging their heads on Tuesday night, even after an upset faded away into a 67-58 defeat at New Mexico. For once, it seemed, Utah State lost, but played above expectations.
Looking for a breakthrough
The Aggies have only two more regular season games left: at San Jose State and at home vs. Wyoming. There’s only a few teams they can catch in the standings. A look at them and their remaining conference games:
No. 7 Fresno State (7-8) » Boise State, San Diego State, at San Jose State
No. 8 Colorado State (6-9) » at UNLV, San Jose State, at Wyoming
No. 9 Air Force (5-10) » UNLV, at New Mexico, Boise State
No. 10 Utah State (5-11) » at San Jose State, Wyoming
Note: San Jose State has clinched last place in the standings
"I thought we came out and we played good tonight," Preston Medlin said. "I thought we played one of our better games. We just had a stretch where we couldn’t make a shot."
That evaluation may say more about sinking expectations than how well the Aggies played. For older Utah State fans, it may be even painful to acknowledge that leading the No. 25 Lobos for a good chunk of a game signifies progress.
But at this point for the Aggies, it’s hard to sugarcoat: They’re 10th in the Mountain West standings out of 11 teams, and just getting out of the first round of the conference tournament will be a challenge. Postseason speculation at this point is fanciful until Utah State starts winning again — which is still possible with only San Jose State and Wyoming remaining.
Stew Morrill said before taking on New Mexico that he’d hope that his players could loosen up and not play under pressure. The unvarnished truth, however, is the Aggies shouldn’t feel pressure because they have nothing to lose.
Accepting that just might help them finish the season.
"We’re trying to have fun, just shoot and play like we know how to play," Jordan Stone said. "We know we can play well, we just got to get out there and do it."
The Aggies’ first half, during which they got an 11-0 run to take a four-point lead on the Lobos, is the kind of start that’s been elusive for them this year. They’ve trailed at halftime in half of their conference games this season and lost them all.
There have been games when athletic ability and overall talent have overcome Utah State, but they’ve also managed to put up good games against San Diego State and now New Mexico, two of the most talented teams in the league. They lost games when they were missing starters such as Jarred Shaw and Kyle Davis, but the most recent losing streak has come with every starter available.
The inconsistencies are hard to figure out, but Morrill has said he thinks some of them are related to uninspired play, the clenched mechanics of an uptight team that is bogged down by its record. Against the Lobos, Utah State showed what it can be when it plays without fear.
At least, until almost the very end.
"It would’ve been a huge win for us," Morrill said. "We just went cold."
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