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(Photo:AP file)LOGAN -- Junior forwards Nate Bendall and Tai Wesley scored 18 points each to lead the Utah State Aggies (7-4) over the Morehead State Eagles (4-5) 79-72 in the Aggies first game of the Basketball Travelers Invitational at the Spectrum Monday. Sophomore forward Steve Peterson scored 16 points to lead the Eagles and shot a perfect 7-of-7 from the field and 2-of-2 from 3-point range.
The Aggies, who have been averaging 46.1 percent from the field, shot 56.5 percent Monday night and 50 percent from the 3-point line against the Eagles. The Eagles shot an equally impressive 50.9 percent from the field, outrebounded the Aggies 28-26, forced the Aggies into more turnovers, and out-scored the Aggie bench 28-13.
After an "embarrassing" loss to Long Beach State, Coach Morrill has been very vocal about his displeasure with his teams' performance. Prior to Mondays' game he challenged his players to step up and bounce back against the Eagles.
"We had to respond with some adversity. We desperately needed a win after the Long Beach game," said Morrill.
Bendall and Wesley were assigned the task of containing Eagles junior forward Kenneth Faried, who leads the team in scoring (16.8) and the nation in rebounding (13). By the end it was Bendall who had the daunting task of guarding Faried one-on-one.
"I thought Nate Bendall may have had his best game as an Aggie. He just played awfully well. He scored it, he blocked some shots, he played good defense," said Coach Morrill. "We went away from doubling their big kid (Faried), because we thought Nate could guard him one-on-one and he did a pretty dang good job of that."
There was one Bendall block in particular that got the Aggie fans on their feet. The Aggies had built a 15 point lead five minutes into the second half only to see that lead dwindle to six with 7:09 left in regulation off a jumper by Eagles' junior guard Demonte Harper. On the ensuing possession true freshman guard Preston Medlin missed a 3-point attempt. Faried received the outlet pass and started a mini fast break. Bendall ran the length of the floor to block Faried's lay-up attempt and the Eagles' momentum.
"That was an awfully big play," said Coach Morrill. "They made some runs and the momentum was in their favor and we responded. We responded when the game was on the line and we've had some close games where that hasn't happened so that was something that should help us confidence wise."
Bendall's take on his block?
"I'd like to say I can jump high, but I know better than that so it's all about just timing those guys and trying to get up after they get up," said Bendall. "Fortunately he tried to lay that up instead of dunk that one; that helps a lot too."
Junior guard Tyler Newbold also played extremely well and bounced back from a dismal two-point performance against Long Beach State scoring 15 points on 4-of-5 shooting from three and 3-of-4 shooting from the foul line. Newbold also recorded four rebounds and dished out four assists.
"Tyler (Newbold) made some shots, which was huge," said Morrill.
Three other Eagles scored in double digits to go along with Peterson's 16 points. Faried scored 14 points; Harper and sophomore guard Terrance Hill each scored 12.
"Our kids competed and gave us a chance to win against a team that was ranked number 24 in the nation in one preseason publication," Morehead State Coach Donnie Tyndall said.
The Eagles, who are picked to win the Ohio Valley Conference, face the Weber State Wildcats Tuesday Dec. 22 at 5:30 p.m. for the first game of day two in the three-day tournament.
Up next for the Aggies is another former Big West foe in the Cal State Fullerton Titans.
The Titans lost to the Wildcats Monday night, 82-71.
"Tomorrow we've gotta come ready to play a similar team like Long Beach. They're athletic, they're quick, they get up and down the floor, and we've gotta be able to take them on and make smart plays when we need too," said Coach Morrill.
Tip-off against the Titans is slated for 8 p.m. at the Spectrum.