Already up double digits and pulling further away from this in-state rival, Craig Smith let loose his biggest roar of the afternoon. It was accompanied by a haymaker fist pump and celebratory a leg kick.
Utah State’s head coach saw exactly what he’s been preaching since he was hired earlier this year. He saw a hustle play no one else was willing to make, effort necessary to keep the Aggies climbing. He saw his 6-foot-1 freshman guard Tauriawn Knight at the rim, rising just high enough to tip in a missed shot. It came midway through the second half, with still plenty of basketball left to be played. Those moments matter.
“We love tough guy plays,” Smith said. “There’s nothing more exciting.”
But that moment encapsulates these Aggies under Smith right now. This is who he wants them to become.
“He always wants to make the winning plays,” Knight said.
So far in 2018, they’re definitely looking the part.
Utah State withstood a late second-half rally to beat Weber State 76-67 Saturday afternoon in the second game of the Beehive Classic inside Vivint Smart Home Arena in downtown Salt Lake City. The Aggies improved to 8-2, bouncing back from a loss to fellow in-state rival BYU on Wednesday night in Provo.
“We wanted to come out and prove to the people in the state who we are,” said junior guard Sam Merrill who had a game-high 19 points. “We don’t feel like Wednesday is who we are.”
Saturday, it seems, was much more like it.
When he arrived in Logan, one of Smith’s biggest tests was molding this very young team (six freshmen and four sophomores) to play his style: up-tempo but with grit, fast but smart, and a ball that never ever stays stationary for too long. While Merrill and freshman center Neemias Queta (13 points, five rebounds, three blocks) led the way, the Aggies had a heavy cast of contributors. Just the way Smith wants it. Junior guard Diogo Brito had nine points an 11 rebounds off the bench. Knight chipped in 10.
How close are they to learning all the ins and outs of a Craig Smith team?
“I think we’re getting there,” Merrill said. “It’s a different style. I think defensively we’re further along than we are offensively because at the end of the day, defense comes down to playing hard. We play really hard. Offensively we’ve got to be more consistent, being able to run, being able to share the ball, look for what we want to do.”
They’re getting there, no doubt. These Aggies did have to sweat it out on Saturday, though.
An 18-point second-half lead was whittled down to six with less than six minutes to play as the Wildcats willed their way back into it. Merrill’s playmaking ability kept the lead padded. He found Brock Miller for an open corner 3 that Miller drilled to put the Aggies up by nine. Smith ran the numbers in his head and prior to Miller coming back on the court and getting open for that 3, he was on the bench for 11 minutes waiting for his shot.
“That was a monster play in the game,” Smith said.
Also emblematic of exactly how he wants them to play.
These Aggies are among the youngest programs in the country, Smith said, and with that come some roller-coaster outings and individual performances. After 10 games, only two losses — to Arizona State and BYU on the road — prove Utah State is on the right track. It’s Smith’s track and at this point of the preseason, he’s all smiles.
“Our guys have really bought in from the get go,” he said. “They’re starting to see the results when we do things the certain way, you always give yourself a chance to win the game. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win, but you’re going to have every opportunity to win.”