As the game ended and the players hugged and the fans cheered the long-awaited win, I noticed coach Prioleau’s stoicness. It was the same look when they would lose. I kept watching to see if some burst of emotion would sneak out, before I realized he probably always has a look that means business.
The Spartans (4-24, 1-16 Mountain West Conference) not only broke their 16-game conference losing streak, but also a 10-year, 22-game losing streak against the Utah State Aggies (14-16, 7-10) with a tough 64-62 win at home.
The Spartans kept up their defensive intensity the entire game and in the end, defense was the difference in stopping the Aggies and earning their first conference win.
For the entire game, both teams stayed within striking distance of each other until the last minute, when Spartan Isaiah Nichols stroked in his only made shot from the weak-side corner to put the Spartans up by four. The Spartan defense tightened further in the remaining seconds to thwart the Aggies last scoring attempt.
Jaycee Hillsman was the spark plug of the night with 19 points and it became clear, as the game progressed, that the offense was running through him and he clearly welcomed it.
Ryan Welage floated in 16 points and also became the Spartan’s all-time, three-point leader. Keith Fisher and Oumar Barry scraped in eight and nine points, respectively, and held up the defensive boards on a night the Spartans also outrebounded the Aggies.
In the second half, the Spartans kept up the same pace and intensity from the first half, as they’ve done many times before - the difference this time being the Spartans were able to score early, while throttling the Aggie offense enough to keep them from breaking away.
Though the Aggies Sam Merrill led all scorers with 26 points, the Utah offense wasn’t as effective as they were in the first half despite heaving up a Mountain West season-high 43 three-point attempts.
The Spartans shot over 46% from the field - 10% better than the Aggies. It could have been better for the Spartans if they made some of the isolation sequences in the end, which would have made the win easier. They also kept well-below their turnover average with “only” 10.
The Spartans take their momentum to Air Force this Saturday, March 3rd to end their regular season, where a win certainly should be possible.