Logan • Saint Mary’s attempted just five free throws in its 60-58 win over Utah State, but two of those sealed that win after a less-than-favorable whistle went against the Aggies on Thursday night.
The Aggies took possession with 37 seconds left and the game tied 58-58. Twice the Aggies put up game-winning attempts, but forward Justin Bean’s layup was blocked and Rylan Jones’ 3-pointer off the rebound went awry.
Saint Mary’s guard Alex Ducas grabbed the loose ball on that Jones miss and fell to the ground. The referees whistled Bean for a loose-ball foul. The call brought the fury of the fans as Ducas appeared to go down without much contact from Bean or any other nearby Aggies.
“I was going up for the rebound,” Bean said of the play. “Thought I had the ball first. Didn’t think I fouled the guy, but you can’t change that.”
The call gave Ducas a one-and-one trip to the line with 0.9 on the clock. He sank both to put the Gaels up 60-58.
Utah State put up a valiant effort to get a shot off. First, they threw a pass across halfcourt and called an immediate timeout. That quick play ran the clock down to 0.6. For the final play, the Aggies tried to lob it to Bean in hopes of something, anything positive happening.
“What I was hoping to get was, like, a little bit of a scrum towards the basket and get a foul, like they had at the end,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said.
Bean failed to get his hands fully on the ball and it went out of bounds. The referees didn’t favor USU with a foul as Odom hoped, but initially appeared to say there was time left for another play. But after deliberating, the officials called the game and walked off.
In the end, those decisive free throws by Ducas capped a 44-point second half for Saint Mary’s, contrasting a 16-point first half for the Gaels. The visitors went 0-for-12 from three in the first half and missed their first 13 shots from deep on the night.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever shot it so poorly,” Saint Mary’s assistant coach Mickey McConnell said. “0-12 has to be one of our worst shooting halves.”
“Part of that was our game plan,” USU guard Steven Ashworth said, “to make sure we didn’t let the shooters shoot and kind of force the other personnel into tougher shots from behind the arc.”
Saint Mary’s made a furious return to the mean out of the halftime break by making five of its first six 3-pointers to start the second half. Three of those triples came in a span of 59 seconds, fueling a 9-0 Gaels run.
“We gave them too many open looks in rhythm,” Ashworth said. “And it came back to hurt us in the end.”
The Gaels wound up shooting 7-for-11 from deep and 65.4 percent overall in the second half.
“At the end of the day they got downhill a lot on us in the second half and made some good plays, collapsed our defense and they knocked down some shots,” Bean said. “We kind of were daring them to shoot a little bit in some instances, but I thought our closeouts could’ve been better. We just didn’t guard how we wanted to that second half and it cost us.”
Utah State shared in Saint Mary’s first-half offensive woes, scoring just 20 in the opening 20, and likewise scored much more in the second. The Aggies’ shooting numbers didn’t improve (they had near-identical shooting percentages of 37.5 and 37.9 in the two halves) but they did get to the free-throw line more. USU went 14-of-16 at the charity stripe with Saint Mary’s attempting just three free throws in the second.
Ashworth and Bean led the charge in the second half offensively. Nine of Ashworth’s 12 points came in the latter half. Bean scored two key buckets down the stretch, creating a 4-0 run by himself that gave USU a 56-53 lead with just over three minutes to play. Bean led all scorers with 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the season.
“He was crucial there for us down the stretch,” Ashworth said of Bean. “Being able to be consistent there for us. Making those tough turnaround jump shots and things like that to keep our offense moving.”
The lead Bean created lasted all of 21 seconds. Dan Fotu, the Gaels leading scorer on the season but held to just 5 points at the time, scored a layup plus a free throw that tied the game with 2:41 on the clock. A Ducas layup for the Gaels and Brandon Horvath free throws for the Aggies advanced the game to 58-58.
The Aggies have now lost two of their first four home games, something that hasn’t happened to Utah State since the 1992-93 season. It’s even more disappointing considering the relatively large crowd that came out to see the game. A reported 8,888 attended the game in the 10,270-seat stadium, the largest of the season so far.
“It was our coaching staff’s first opportunity, and some of our players’ first opportunity to really see what the Spectrum can be and how powerful it is in there,” Odom said.
“They were loud, they were energetic, they were in there the whole game,” Ashworth said. “Definitely gave us a boost, so we appreciate that. Unfortunately, we didn’t come up with the result that we wanted to at the end of the game.”
Thursday’s game is the first part of a key two-game stretch on the non-conference schedule for the Aggies. The second part is a road matchup with No. 12 BYU. That twelfth ranking will drop since the Cougars lost to UVU on Wednesday. It could set up a night with two teams frustrated by recent losses.
“You’ve got two hungry teams coming up on Wednesday,” Bean said.