The Utah State men’s basketball team fell agonizingly short in a 78-77 loss to Fresno State on Wednesday night at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. The Aggies led from the opening tip until FSU’s Braxton Huggins put the Bulldogs in front with a 3-pointer with 5.5 seconds remaining.
“Losing’s always disappointing,” head coach Craig Smith said. “Fresno (State) and us have been two of the most consistent teams all year as witnessed by our records and who we’ve beaten and how we’ve won… This is a pivotal game for us. We play two of the top three teams in the first three games of league play, and it’s at home. That’s what’s disappointing.”
USU blitzed the Bulldogs from the start, opening the game on a 12-4 run before the first media timeout, powered by two blocks from freshman Neemias Queta and three assists from sophomore Crew Ainge. Fresno State responded with a 8-2 run of their own, relying on the scoring Nate Grimes and Huggins to close the gap.
Following the frenetic pace of the opening minutes, the Mountain West’s top two defensive teams in points allowed per game began to settle in, with both teams suffering through scoring droughts lasting several minutes. The Aggies eventually emerged from the defensive stand-off to build an 11-4 run in the closing minutes of the half to stretch the lead into double digits, before a 3-pointer from Deshon Taylor brought the score to 38-30 heading into halftime.
“I’m really proud of our guys. I loved our effort. I loved our energy,” said head coach Craig Smith. “We’re a very good defensive team… We just couldn’t find a way to get those stops down the stretch.”
The Bulldogs climbed back immediately in the second half, with two straight 3-pointers cutting the deficit to only two points. On multiple occasions, the Aggies seemed poised to take firm control of the game, extending their lead back to nine points at one point in the second half, but the 3-point shooting of Fresno State repeatedly allowed the Bulldogs to stay within striking distance. Fresno State shot 10-16 from behind the arc in the second half, and 15-31 for the entire game.
The Aggies maintained their lead for much of the second half on the strength of their free throw shooting. USU finished 21-30 from the FT line in the game, including 18-23 in the second half. In the final minutes, however, the Aggies left several points on the board, converting only three of their final six FTs to leave the door open for Fresno State.
With the opportunity, Huggins found enough room to drain his eighth 3-pointer of the game put the Bulldogs in front 78-77. A final 3-point attempt from junior Sam Merrill missed, as did a desperation tip-in from senior Quinn Taylor, to seal the win for Fresno State.
“Just a tough loss,” Porter said. “You lead the whole entire game, wire-to-wire until that last shot. That just hits you in the gut when you lose like that… I think that’s the biggest takeaway is experience. Experiencing a game like that and being ready for the next one.”
Merrill and Queta each finished with 16 points to lead the Aggies, while sophomore Abel Porter added a career-high 14 points. Miller added 11 points, while senior Quinn Taylor finished with 10 points.
Huggins led the Bulldogs with 33 points on the night, with Noah Blackwell and Deshon Taylor scoring 13 and 11 points, respectively.
The game continued a theme of close games between Utah State and Fresno State. Last year, the Aggies escaped with a 65-62 victory at Fresno State courtesy of a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Daron Henson. At home, USU utilized a 10-0 run over the final 4:12 of the game to force overtime before winning 81-79 in the extra period.
“Obviously a devastating loss,” freshman Brock Miller said. “Credit to Fresno State, they came out especially in the second half and made some tough shots. But overall, I think that we’re going to learn from this and we have to keep moving forward and keep working hard. Definitely a tough break, but we’ll get it back.”
With the loss, the Aggies are now 1-2 in MW play, and face an uphill climb back into the upper echelon of the conference standings. At 11-5 overall, USU will attempt to right the ship with two games on the road at Wyoming and San Jose State.
“We’re really hungry now, coming off a tough loss to Nevada and a tough loss to Fresno (State),” Miller said. “We’re only three games in, so everything that we want is still ahead of us. We’re still heads up, we’re positive, and we’re going to be ready to roll on Saturday.”
Tipoff between Utah State and Wyoming is scheduled for Saturday at 4 pm MST.