LAS VEGAS, Nev. —
Utah State University men's basketball coach Craig Smith said it's something he speaks to his team about on a constant basis, but it's not what you may be thinking.
"Next best action," Smith said.
When things are not going right for the Aggies, he said his players are urged to think "NBA" and try to find a way to reverse the trend.
And things didn't go well for Utah State for a good portion of its quarterfinal matchup against the University of New Mexico on Thursday evening in the 2019 Mountain West Men's Basketball Championship.
The Lobos led for the majority of the game and forced Utah State into playing their tempo and forcing the Aggies into a season-high 24 turnovers.
Utah State point guard Sam Merrill said the number of turnovers — which was 15 in the first half — felt a lot higher, but the Aggies were able to limit the occurrences in the second half.
New Mexico got the first bucket of the game with a Dane Kuiper layup, but Utah State answered right back and both teams took turns playing tug-of-war and trying to pull any small advantage there was to be had.
The Aggies shot well from the field in the opening half (48 percent) to help overcome the turnover problem, while UNM converted those into 13 points at the other end.
That resulted in the game remaining a single-possession affair for the entirety of the first half. Both teams led by as many as three and things were tied a total of 10 times over that period.
UNM had a couple of chances to increase its 3-point lead late in the half, but a couple of calls went against the Lobos in the final minute and the Aggies were able to draw even 39-39 at the break.
New Mexico was able to play Utah State to a dead heat through 20 minutes despite two of its best players being held scoreless. Anthony Mathis failed to register a point on 0-of-3 shooting and Carlton Bragg, saddled with foul trouble, didn't even get an attempt up.
But sophomore transfer Vance Jackson came up big for the second time in as many games — pouring in 14 first-half points to lead all scorers, while Corey Manigault was the next-leading scorer with 11. Utah State was paced with nine points from Merrill.
Utah State scored first, but fell behind again after Jackson drilled another 3-pointer to reclaim the lead for the Lobos.
And even after Utah State was able to tie the game again in the first minute of the second half, UNM reasserted control with a 10-2 run to run out to an eight-point lead — including back-to-back 3s from Jackson and Mathis, respectively.
On the ensuing possession, an out-of-bounds call that went in favor of Utah State seemed to draw the ire of UNM head coach Paul Weir and he went out past half court to plead his case with one of the referees. The play had triggered a media timeout and Weir said he didn't think the coaches' box applied in the dead ball situation.
He was issued a technical and Utah State cashed in on the opportunity with a four-point possession — hitting both free throws and getting a Diego Brito layup to cut the lead to 52-48.
It's difficult to say how much impact Weir's technical had on the outcome of the game, but probably not much. Jackson and Mathis both hit shots shortly thereafter that gave the Lobos a six-point edge, but the lead was short-lived.
A couple of things seemed to coincide with the Utah State run. The Aggies had committed 20 turnovers less than six minutes into the second half, but committed just four the rest of the game — one of which was in the closing seconds.
But it's hard to turn the ball over from the foul line.
Living at the free throw line in the second half not only allowed Utah State to get some easy points, it almost unquestionably prevented the turnover from ballooning even higher.
The Lobos were whistled for 13 fouls in the first half, compared to 11 for the Aggies — but in the second half that disparity stretched significantly to 16 UNM fouls versus eight for Utah State. The Aggies attempted a robust 26 foul shots in the second half and a total of 45 for the game (the Lobos shot 21).
Head coach Paul Weir said players like Neemias Queta and Merrill have "earned the right" to get the benefit of the call — particularly on 50-50 plays — and both got a fair amount in the second half when the Aggies needed those calls most.
For context, the Aggies attempted 25 fewer shots from the floor than New Mexico — despite winning the rebounding battle by 18 boards, including those of the offensive variety.
Neemias gave Utah State a 61-60 lead with a free throw at the 10:20 mark, though the Lobos took the lead right back. The same thing happened later in the half when Merrill drilled a 3-pointer only to have Mathis answer right back with one of his own to make it 76-74 with four minutes remaining.
Mathis extended the lead to two points again with a jumper on the next possession, but the Lobos failed to score again from the field over the final 3:24 of the game. That, coupled with a couple of timely shots from Utah State, derailed the Lobos' aspirations of advancing in the tournament.
Justin Bean, who had a career-high 14 points and 15 rebounds helped salt away the game and allow the Aggies to escape with a 91-83 victory.
The game will almost certainly be the final one as a Lobo for seniors Mathis and Kuiper, who Weir recognized in the postgame conference.
He said he hoped the two would be able to look back on this time in their lives and be able to say they were a part of helping build something special.
The loss dropped the Lobos' record to 7-11 in conference play and 14-18 overall.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball and baseball and contributes content for various other sports as well. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.