Throughout the 2020-21 season, the Utah State men’s basketball team shopped for dancing shoes any time it could. Sometimes a pair came too expensive — like when the Aggies began the season losing three of their first four games, or when they suffered back-to-back losses against Boise State.
But other times, it looked like the Aggies found shoes they could not only afford, but fit better than Cinderella’s glass slipper. They thought they’d found such a pair upon learning they earned the No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid.
Utah State put on those shoes Friday when it faced the sixth-seeded Texas Tech Red Raiders in the first round only to find that they received two lefts.
The Aggies lost 65-53 to the No. 21 Red Raiders, who will play Arkansas on Sunday after the Razorbacks beat Colgate. The Aggies committed 22 turnovers that translated 28 points for the Red Raiders, who used a 24-4 run in the second half to pull away.
“Obviously that was our Achilles’ heel,” USU coach Craig Smith said. “We had too many turnovers.”
Taking care of the ball was something Utah State knew it had to do going into the game. The team’s 16 giveaways were the main reason it lost to San Diego State in the title game of the Mountain West Conference Tournament, and it’s been an issue at various points of the season.
And Texas Tech, as bad Aggies luck would have it, is elite at forcing turnovers with its speed and athleticism up and down the roster. The Red Raiders outpaced their season averages in forced turnovers and points off turnovers against the Aggies.
Junior center Neemias Queta and junior guard Marco Anthony had five turnovers apiece for Utah State, which ends the season at 20-9 overall. Texas Tech was able to limit Queta’s touches, but the Portuguese big man still managed to get 11 points, 13 rebounds six assists and seven blocks.
“I was just trying to get what they were giving me,” Queta said. “Whenever they doubled me too hard, I was trying to find the open teammates. Whenever they weren’t aware of my teammates on the perimeter, I would just try and go get a bucket. But I felt like they did a pretty good job of … containing me, too.”
Junior forward Justin Bean led the scoring with 13 points and also contributed eight rebounds. Anthony added 11 points and four assists.
Utah State led by three after one half despite committing 13 turnovers. The reason the Aggies led, however, was because they took care of the ball down the stretch and Texas Tech shot less than 30%.
After the Aggies took a 31-25 lead with 16:47 remaining in the game, Texas Tech scored 13 straight points fueled partly by a couple of bad passes that led to fast-break layups. Utah State couldn’t recover after that.
When the Aggies weren’t turning the ball over, they generated good shots, and many of them were open 3-pointers. But those shots didn’t fall consistently enough Friday.
“The bottom line is you play these guys, you’ve got to make some threes,” Smith said. “Unfortunately when we had those great opportunities at times, we just didn’t make them pay specifically from the three.”
The Aggies have a squad that features only two seniors in Alphonso Anderson and Kuba Karwowski. That means there’s the potential that everyone — including Queta — returns next season. Smith said the young guys will get better and the future is bright for Utah State.
But Queta offered a reminder that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to next season’s roster.
“You never know who’s coming back, you never know who’s getting recruited here, so you never know,” said Queta, a potential NBA prospect who did not answer a question about his own future. “But I know for sure one thing: Coach Smith has the right culture over here and I know the Aggies are going to compete for another Mountain West Championship.”