The locker room was quiet. It was halftime of a late-November game against Louisiana State University, and the Utah State basketball team was down 14. Every player felt dejected after what sophomore forward Justin Bean described as “the worst half of basketball we’d ever played.”
Then senior guard Diogo Brito, one three captains for the Aggies, addressed the room, which had not yet been entered by the coaching staff. His message may have seemed unbelievable in the moment, but not for the players who listened.
“We’re going to win this game,” said Bean, recalling Brito’s words. “Don’t hang your heads. We’re going to find a way. I don’t know how, but we’re going to win this game.”
The Aggies did win that game, 80-78, despite being down by as many as 19 points and playing on the road. It’s one of three times this season Utah State has prevailed in a contest decided by three points or less. The other two were an overtime win over South Florida and a three-point victory over Florida.
UTAH STATE VS. NO. 13 SAN DIEGO STATE
At the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, Logan
When • Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV • CBSSN
Even in games that don’t end as closely, USU has found success in hotly contested situations. In the game against North Texas that followed two days after LSU, the Aggies and Mean Green were tied with less than four minutes remaining. Utah State scored the last nine points to secure the win.
Then there was the overtime victory against Fresno State. A hectic last two minutes in regulation forced the extra time, during which the Aggies turned up their defense.
Some players think the reason for the team’s success in close games so far this season comes down to the severe veterans on the roster.
“The experience and maturity that we have on this team has allowed us to overcome those situations where games get close and come down to the wire and come down to winning plays,” sophomore guard Brock Miller said.
In addition to the collective experience on the team, Bean said another contributing factor to how the Aggies eking out close games is their preparation.
“Every day we just make sure that we’re locked in and know which play we’re running,” Bean said. “Different guys have to play different positions, so we’re really a versatile team. We’re really deep in our bench. So everyone who comes in is expected to know exactly what’s going on, know the situation.”
The Aggies experienced their fair share of tight games last season, with more varied success. But they built confidence throughout the year in those situations. To win the MWC title, USU forced overtime against Colorado State and ended up winning that game.
It’s those moments that have the Aggies believing this season that they can prevail under heightened pressure. But merely having that experience and confidence isn’t enough to win games, coach Craig Smith said.
“It’s nice to know that you can do it because you’ve done it before,” Smith said. “But at the same time, it doesn’t mean anything because every year is a new year and a new entity and a new team. So you have to go out there and earn respect every night.”
Now that Utah State’s remaining schedule consists of only Mountain West Conference opponents, there could be more opportunities for it to experience tight games. Senior guard Sam Merrill said the intensity level ratchets up in conference games and the scouting reports are more detailed in preparing for them.
And while it would be preferable for the Aggies to play in fewer close games, Merrill said that’s out of their control. What they can control, however, is their mindset.
“You’re going to have some close games and that’s where our confidence comes in,” Merrill said. “But we just want to focus on trying to play the best that we can and get better every game and try and win — whether it be in a blowout or in a close game. Whatever happens, we just want to continue to try and play well.”