<strong>LAS VEGAS—</strong> It’s often said that it is hard to defeat a team three times in the same season. USU head coach Stew Morrill said he doesn’t buy into that logic, and that if a team is good enough to beat you twice, maybe they’re just better than you.
Utah State gave UT Arlington all it could handle Thursday night in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament Quarterfinals, but at the end of the day, the better team won as the Mavericks emerged victorious once again, 83-78.
“They’ve gotten us three times so obviously you have to say they are a better team than us. We struggled a little bit down the stretch,” Morrill said. “I take credit for that. When you don’t execute, when your team doesn’t execute down the stretch, it’s on the coach.”
Thursday’s loss was almost a microcosm of the up and down season the Aggies have had. UTA jumped out of the gate, hitting on all cylinders. Having forced USU into an average of 16.5 turnovers in the two regular season meetings, the Mavericks forced five Aggie turnovers in the first four minutes as they quickly built a 13-3 advantage.
The Arlington lead ballooned to 18, as USU trailed 27-9, but as they Aggies have done on and off the court this season, they battled back. USU chipped away at the deficit, eventually cutting it in half. The Mavericks pushed it back to double digits with a runner right before the half, for a 40-29 lead at the intermission.
“I think we were just panicking a little bit there at the beginning. We weren’t quite ready for the press. They were pressuring us pretty hard. We were just a little flustered at the beginning,” said junior guard Spencer Butterfield who finished with 16 points. “But once we got control of that and were able to break the press we were able to do just fine.”
Coming out of the half, Utah State used a 6-1 run to get right back in the game and continued to chip away. After having a terrible first half, Ben Clifford’s offensive game woke up as he erupted for 16 second-half points. He connected on 4-of-5 shots from beyond the arc, his second of which gave the Aggies their first lead of the game, 53-52, with 11:50 still to play.
As they would continue to do for the remainder of the game, however, the Mavericks had an answer. Senior leader Kevin Butler – who finished with a game-high 23 points – was one of multiple UTA players who responded to every Utah State push.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Clifford and TeNale Roland (16 points) gave the Aggies their biggest lead of the game, 66-64, with 5:46 remaining. With the USU crowd rocking, the Mavericks once again killed the momentum with a 3-pointer of their own from Drew Charles. The teams continued to battle down the stretch, but Utah State would never regain the lead.
“It was a little deflating. But we should have done a better job on defense. They had a lot of second chances and opportunities. I think that was a big thing. We’d get a stop and then they’d get a rebound and then put it back,” Butterfield said. “It was just frustrating. We were so close to just breaking it open and any time we had the chance, they’d answer back.”
With 1:04 remaining, Jarred Shaw – who finished with a team-high 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting to go along with nine rebounds – was fouled underneath the basket, while he muscled it up and in. He converted the old-fashioned three-point play to pull USU within two, 77-75.
After a badly missed 3-pointer by Shaw and free throws by UTA, Clifford hit his fourth triple of the night to again pull the Aggies within two. A foul and one-of-two free throws by Butler, and USU had a chance to tie with 37 seconds remaining, down 81-78. Clifford got open at the top of the circle, but as he pulled up, elected to pass it inside. The resulting play was his fifth turnover of the game.
Despite the turnover, UTA forward Jordan Reves missed both ensuing free throws, giving the Aggies one more chance with 18.6 seconds remaining. In fitting fashion though, another turnover ended the game and most likely the season for Utah State, as Roland’s pass was intercepted by Butler and returned for an easy layup with just seconds left.
“We panicked a little bit when there was more time where we could have done some things. We just turned it over when the game was on the line,” Morrill said. “We played really hard. I’m proud of this group for that. All the adversity we’ve had with all the injuries and everything else, we’ve tried night in and night out and played really hard. And we did that again, we just weren’t quite good enough tonight.”
The loss marks the second time in as many years that the Aggies have lost in the quarterfinals with a chance to win or tie on the final possession. Prior to last season, USU had never lost in the quarterfinals of the tournament during their eight years in the WAC.
Now USU has an offseason to rest and heal after one of the most injury-plagues seasons ever. Danny Berger is expected to be granted a medical redshirt and return as a junior after collapsing during practice, while preseason WAC Player of the Year Preston Medlin will return from a broken wrist for his senior season. Junior Spencer Butterfield (cist on sciatic nerve) and freshman Marcel Davis (ankles) are expected to have offseason surgery as well.
“I think we’re done. I just don’t think there is a postseason out there for us,” Morrill said. “On the slight chance that we would be invited, with all the injuries and everything, our administration feels pretty strongly about maybe we should just shut her down.”