SALT LAKE CITY — With starting point guard Rollie Worster sidelined for the second game of Utah State's road series at Boise State, the onus of the Aggies' chance at a win was stretched across the broad frame of 7-foot-2 center Neemias Queta.
And those shoulders were almost big enough to pull off the win.
Derrick Alston had 23 points, Mladen Armus added 13 points, 11 rebounds and three assists, and Boise State wrapped up the home sweep, 81-77, at Extra Mile Arena in Boise, Idaho.
Queta finished with 30 points, 11 rebounds and two blocked shots for the Aggies (14-7, 11-4 MW), who fell to third place in the Mountain West Conference after entering the series in first as late as Wednesday.
"They had a great weekend. They did what they had to do, and we didn't," Utah State coach Craig Smith said. "Hopefully we get to play again. We need some games … and hopefully we get to play in the conference tournament, too."
Justin Bean added 11 points and five rebounds for Utah State, and Brock Miller had 10 points and four rebounds for an Aggie squad that shot just 4-of-14 from 3-point range.
Even so, the Aggies had a shot to tie in the final minute. Trailing 78-75 after a missed layup on the other end, Steven Ashworth's 3-point attempt rimmed out, Armus grabbed the rebound with 15 seconds left, and the Broncos held on.
Abu Kigab finished with 19 points and three rebounds for the Broncos, including a pair of key free throws with 10 seconds left that helped seal the victory.
If the Aggies were going to pull off a road upset, they were going to have to defend better than the way Queta described Wednesday night.
And they did — for about 20 minutes.
Queta had 14 points and six rebounds in the first half to pace the Aggies to a 37-30 halftime edge, holding the Broncos to just 39% shooting before the break. Apart from Mountain West preseason player of the year Alston, who had 9 points at the break, no other Boise State player had more than four for a host that shot just 3-of-11 from 3-point range.
Utah State also outrebounded the Broncos 21-13 before the break, with six offensive boards that led to six second-chance points.
But Boise State used a 9-0 run to open the second half and tie the game on Alston's bucket with 15:06 remaining. The Broncos connected on seven of their first eight shots from the field, including a 3-pointer by Alston to push the fifth-year senior into double digits.
Queta picked up his fourth foul, and the Broncos pushed their lead as high as 50-45 on Dennis' three that capped a 14-0 run. But the Aggies didn't go away, responding with an 8-0 run and led by as much as four, 68-64 with 6:15 to go.
Defense travels, or at least it usually does for most teams. It certainly did in the first half for Utah State.
But not so much after the break for the Aggies, who ended the evening allowing 1.71 points over 69 possessions.
"You've got to produce," Smith said. "This is big boy basketball, and it's high-level production. there can only be so many 'my bads' out there.
"You've got to be a complete player out there."
Alston powered a 7-0 run by himself to retake the lead with 4:08 left, and the Broncos never trailed again in a second half where they shot 17 of 23 from the field.
"Boise State, you have to give them a lot of credit," Miller said. "In the second half, they shot some 74% from the field; it's tough to beat a team shooting at that level.
"We showed a lot of fight, and we're going to have to bounce back from this, for sure."
Still, missing one of their best perimeter defenders in Worster, the Aggies looked lost on defense in the second half. Utah State outscored the Broncos 44-38 in the paint, but trailed 43-33 from the guard line.
"This isn't an excuse, but Worster's a very good defensive player," Smith said. "But other guys have to be better. There were just too many breakdowns.
The loss may have been the last chance at a signature win — at least in the regular season — for Utah State, which had hopes of an at-large selection to the NCAA Tournament.
The Aggies are currently scheduled to conclude the season at home next Friday and Sunday against Nevada before heading to the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas, which is scheduled to begin Wednesday, March 10. But the league built in a 10-day layoff to end the season, in case of postponed contests — including three in the past month the Aggies have suffered.
In addition to that, it's not a guarantee the conference will host its annual tournament in Las Vegas, like most years. Smith said it's "looking likely," but the Mountain West has set a Feb. 26 date to formally decide.
But the two-game series in Boise represented two rare Quadrant 1 wins for the Aggies' resume — and if nothing else, the opportunity will go away simply missed. Will it hurt enough to keep Utah State out of the NCAA Tournament? That's to be determined.
But it's not a good thing, Smith admitted.
"It hurts. At our level, and especially this year, we really struggle to get Quad 1 games," he said. "People generally don't want to play us. So when you get those opportunities, you've got to find a wya to make it happen. We gave ourselves two opportunities to win, and we didn't find a way to win.
"We are where we are, and we've got to live in the reality where we're at."