Logan • The lights went out over the court at Dee Glen Smith Spectrum on Saturday night prior to Utah State’s men’s basketball game against San Diego State.
In the darkness, the Aggies crowd shouted, “Welcome to Hell!”
The Spectrum was indeed a version of Dante’s Inferno on Saturday, but only for the Aggies. A 77-68 loss to the Aztecs left them tortured in myriad ways.
The worst of the damage came to the Aggies’ hopes of defending their Mountain West Conference title. USU could have redeemed itself from an abysmal loss to UNLV on Wednesday in conference action with a win over the Aztecs. But a loss to the Aztecs puts the Aggies (13-4, 2-2) deeper in the hole, while SDSU improves to 15-0, 4-0.
The No. 13 Aztecs are one of only two undefeated teams left in the nation alongside No. 12 Auburn and possess the nation’s longest winning streak (15).
That was just the beginning of the damage for Utah State, which also saw numerous streaks of its own go up in flames. The loss was the Aggies’ first at home since Fresno State beat them by a single point on Jan. 9, 2019, a string of 15 straight games. It is also the first time Utah State has dropped back-to-back games since Craig Smith took the reins two years ago.
“Those are some things that are self-inflicted,” Smith said. “And they made us pay, and that’s what great teams do.”
Handing SDSU its first loss this season should have been motivation enough for the Aggies. Yet Utah State entered the game also wanting to shake off its own demons after suffering a 70-53 loss to UNLV on Wednesday in a contest in which Utah State had season lows in rebounds, points, bench points, field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage and assists.
“It’s going to be even more physical and competitive than it might have been. It’s going to be a madhouse, on the floor and in the stands,” SDSU coach Brian Dutcher told the San Diego Union Tribune prior to the game. “Utah State was already going to be tough. [Now] they’re going to be angry and tough.”
Led by 7-foot center Neemias Queta, the Aggies were all that and more for the first 10 minutes of the game.
The Aggies entered the contest with the most rebounds in the NCAA. Queta, who found out just 90 minutes before tipoff that he would be starting and playing in his first game since bruising his knee in a two-point loss to Florida on Dec. 21, seemed intent on keeping them on the highest perch. He had already corralled 10 by halftime and finished with 14 of the team’s 30 boards as well as 15 points, three assists and three steals.
“I was really determined to play this game. I felt like it would be a really good game to be back. San Diego State is a really good team. They’re probably playing the best basketball in the league right now," said Queta, who played a season-high 30 minutes. “I felt like it would be a really good game for me to be back because I could learn from all my mistakes and learn to just trust my knee again.”
After tying 11-all with the Aztecs with 12:16 left to play in the first half, however, USU’s offense seemed to be lacking fuel for the fire. It missed its next seven shots as SDSU went on a 10-1 run over the next five minutes and extended its lead to 11 before a layup by Abel Porter cut that advantage to 34-25 at the half.
It didn’t help the Aggies any that they were shooting only 22 percent from 3-point range, a number that dipped down to 18.2 percent early in the second half. At the final buzzer, Utah State had made just 26 percent of its 3-pointers and 42.6 percent of its attempts from the field. Worse, the Aggies, one of the nation’s top free-throw shooting teams, were just 16 of 24 from the charity stripe for the game. And as senior guard Sam Merrill pointed out, several of those misses were on the front half of a one-and-one.
“The better teams you play, you just can’t afford to go on those kinds of ruts,” Smith said.
The Aztecs, meanwhile, were connecting on 37.5 percent of their long-range attempts and half of their shots from the field in the half. They finished the game shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 45 percent from behind the arc.
Also not playing into the Aggies’ plans for comeback were the three fouls Queta was whistled for in quick succession in the first three minutes of the second half. The third sent him to the bench, where he sat for nearly four minutes as SDSU went on an 11-4 run for a 53-37 lead, its largest of the game.
Back in the game, Queta helped the Aggies pull within seven, capping the run with a monster dunk. But Utah State wouldn’t get any closer than that.
At least one streak is still alive for the Aggies. Namely, Merrill — whom Smith said has been battling an undisclosed injury for more than a week — scored a team-high 26 points for his 91st double-digit game of his career. Abel Porter added nine points and Justin Bean scored eight with a season-low four rebounds. The bench scored a season-low eight points.
Junior guard Malachi Flynn paced the Aztecs with 22 points, including a couple 3-pointers down the stretch to keep the Aggies at bay, and four assists. Matt Mitchell chipped in 19 points and a team-high seven rebounds and Jordan Schakel added 11.
The Aggies will try to get back on track at Air Force on Tuesday at 9 p.m.
• Neemias Queta returned to the Aggies lineup for the first time since Dec. 21 and grabbed 14 of their 30 rebounds while scoring 15 points
• USU was just five days shy of a year of only winning at the Spectrum. Their last loss there was Jan. 9, 2019, for a streak of 15 straight games.
• No. 13 SDSU shot better than 50 percent from the field and 45 percent from behind the arc in remaining one of two undefeated NCAA Division I teams in the country alongside No. 12 Clemson