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LOGAN — The magic may be wearing off for Utah State basketball. Or, at least, the first real on-court adversity of the season for the Aggies has reared its head.
On Friday afternoon in Oahu, Hawaii, Utah State suffered its second loss in three games — and its second loss against a Quad 4 opponent — to an SMU team with a 4-7 record.
SMU led the Aggies nearly wire-to-wire to defeat Utah State 77-74 and advance to the Hawaii Diamond Head Classic final on Sunday.
The things that went right for the Aggies during its 9-0 start to the season all went wrong in its loss to the Mustangs. Instead of efficient passing, the Aggies dribbled too much in stretches and were forced into errant throws by SMU's lengthy defense, which resulted in 17 turnovers and 22 points for the Mustangs.
The same Aggies team that led the country in 3-point percentage for several weeks struggled mightily from downtown and shot just 10-of-36 from beyond the arc. Steven Ashworth was 3-of-13 from 3-point range, and Taylor Funk was 0-of-7.
Considering the impressive length and elite downhill driving ability of an SMU team that's steadily improving under first-year coach Rob Lanier, the offensive deficiencies were too much to overcome for the Aggies. The Mustangs outshot the Aggies — going 48% from the field — in large part due to their ability to get easy looks at the rim with its drives and Utah State turnovers.
"I thought (SMU) played an extremely clean game," head coach Ryan Odom said. "They scored at the rim, they made some timely shots. We made some unfortunate plays within the game.
"They got 22 points off of those turnovers," Odom said. "And we lost because of it. I mean, that's a simple fact."
A late push from the Aggies was nearly enough to evade the upset loss. Down 63-54 with 6:26 to play, the Aggies put together a 10-2 run and trailed by 1 point with three minutes left to play, but it was as close as they'd come.
SMU made plays down the stretch, including a Zach Nutall 3-pointer with 33 seconds left to play to go up 74-68 and to seal the game.
"They answered every challenge that our guys made," Odom said.
SMU's starting guards caused havoc for the Aggies. Zhuric Phelps had a game-high 19 points and Nutall added 13 points in the win.
Sean Bairstow and Max Shulga finished with 18 points apiece, Ashworth had 15 points and Funk finished with 7 points as Utah State shot just 38% from the field against SMU.
During some stretches in the game, the Aggies likely could have set the tone if they could get some shots to fall.
SMU jumped out to a 27-15 lead to open the game and proved the aggressor to put the Aggies on their heels. Ashworth buried back-to-back 3-pointers, which sparked some energy for the Aggies, and Utah State tied it 30-30 minutes before halftime.
The Aggies gave up an 8-0 run to closeout the half but clawed their way back into the game, thanks in part to two 3-pointers from Shulga.
With seven minutes left to play, the Aggies trailed by 9 points, but Shulga made three free throws that were followed by a deep pull-up 3-pointer in transition by Ashworth to make it a 1-point deficit.
But, ultimately, playing a game with mini-runs followed by extended dry spells was not sustainable for Utah State. The Aggies defense improved in the second half and held the Mustangs to 40% shooting, SMU's ability to attack the rim and reach the free-throw line — they shot 15-of-17 from the charity stripe — kept Utah State at arm's length.
"They do a good job of running you off staggers and setting some really solid ball screens for those (guards), and they give them space to work with and they're athletic," Odom said. "There were times where we did well with it, and there were times where, obviously, we didn't do as well as we needed to do in order to win the game."
Utah State looks to shake off the loss when it plays the loser of Washington State and Hawaii at 4:30 p.m. MST on Christmas.