Defense and rebounding.
No matter how good Colorado State’s offense is, their success comes down to those two things, and their loss Saturday afternoon to Utah State proved it once again.
Trailing by two with eight seconds to play, the Rams had a chance to tie or take the lead if they could rebound Utah State guard Shane Rector’s missed free throw. Instead, the ball caromed off the back of the rim, over the heads of everyone except Rector, who snatched the ball out of the air and was immediately fouled.
He didn’t miss the second time, draining both free throws with seven seconds to go, sealing a 96-92 win over the Rams in a wildly entertaining game with plenty of offense and little-to-no defense on either end.
Utah State guard Chris Smith poured in a career-high 35 points to go along with 12 rebounds while Julion Pearre added 19 points and Jalen Moore pitched in a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
As a team, the Aggies shot 50 percent from the field, while knocking down 13 of their 27 3-point attempts.
CSU, led by senior guard Antwan Scott’s 35 points, eight rebounds and six assists, hit 15 of its 36 3-pointers, but again found itself on the wrong end of an entertaining college basketball game. And again, it came down to defense.
“We don’t play any defense as a team,” a visibly distraught John Gillon said after the game. “We’re terrible. We’re just awful. And Coach tells us time and time again, he coaches us to do things the right way, and at the end of the day we just don’t go and do it.”
Smith, who scored 24 last year against the Rams in Logan, scored the Aggies first eight points as they jumped out to an 8-3 lead a little more than two minutes into the game. CSU battled its way back, retaking the lead on a layup by Scott with 13:14 to go in the first half. After trading baskets for a little more than three minutes, the Aggies retook the lead on a layup by standout forward Jalen Moore, and they wouldn’t trail again the rest of the half, taking a 45-39 lead into the break after CSU forward Fred Richardson’s running floater bounced around and in as time expired in the first half.
The Aggies came out hot to start the second half though, extending their lead to 10, 50-40, just 36 seconds into the second frame. Led by Scott, who scored 17 in the first half and 18 in the second, the Rams chipped into the Aggies lead over the next six minutes, and took a lead of their own with 13:56 to play on a dunk by center Tiel Daniels.
But, the Aggies responded with a 14-2 run over the next three minutes to stretch their lead to back to 10 points, and CSU could get no closer than eight until the six-minute mark of the half, when a Gillon 3-pointer cut the deficit to five.
Utah State seemed to have the game wrapped up in the final two minutes, leading by 91-82 after Smith’s jumper with 1:04 to go.
Scott wouldn’t go quietly though, connecting on back-to-back 3-pointers, which along with an easy slam by Tiel Daniels, pulled the Rams within one, 91-90, with 13 seconds to go.
After Smith knocked down a pair of free throws, Gillon hit a pair of his own, leaving CSU trailing 93-92 with eight seconds to go.
Rector calmly knocked down the first shot, but clanked the second, and was able to find his own rebound and help the Aggies secure their 11th win of the year and move back to .500 in the Mountain West.
The loss, CSU’s second in a row at home, drops the Rams to 10-8 overall and 2-3 in the Mountain West heading into a road matchup with in-state rival Air Force on Wednesday. It also marked the eighth time this season that the Rams have given up 75 or more points, something they did only five times last season.
“I thought we played a lot of plays right, and they just made baskets over us,” CSU head coach Larry Eustachy said. “We gave up some cheap stuff underneath the basket, but I don’t fault our team. They gave a great effort, all the way up to Antwan getting that jump ball late on the press. I feel bad for them, I really do. They’re so close.”
Collegian Senior Sports Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.