Utah State coach Craig Smith knew the right metaphor to tell his players as they aimed to overcome a 19-point deficit against LSU on Friday.
"I just told our guys we had to chop wood," Smith said after the No. 15 Aggies emerged with an 80-78 win over the Tigers at the Jamaica Classic at Montego Bay.
Next up for the Aggies (6-0) is a Sunday meeting with North Texas. The Mean Green (2-4) dropped their Jamaica opener 60-47 against Rhode Island on Friday.
Utah State trailed LSU 54-35 with less than 16 1/2 minutes remaining.
"I told them to chop it down to 10 points by when eight minutes remained," Smith said. "We got it down to 12 points. I told them to get it to around five points with five minutes left. They did. We were able to chop that wood down by not giving up. That showed a lot of character."
Sam Merrill made the go-ahead 3-pointer with 57 seconds left, capping the improbable comeback. Utah State rallied by making its first six 3-point attempts of the second half. LSU also committed 11 second-half turnovers.
Merrill, the Mountain West Player of the Year last season, was 5 of 9 from 3-point range. He scored 24 points, sank 9 of 10 free throws and had eight assists. Alphonso Anderson also had 24 points, and Justin Bean added 14 points and 12 rebounds for the Aggies.
Utah State improved to 34-7 overall under Smith, who is in his second year. The record is the best by an Aggies coach in his first 41 games.
The Aggies improved to 62-18 as an AP-ranked team after extending its run to six straight games with 80 or more points. Utah State's ranking is the highest for the program since the 1970-71 season, when it was as high as No. 9.
While the Aggies rallied Friday, North Texas blew a halftime lead to Rhode Island.
The Mean Green led 27-24 at the half following a 16-6 run to end the first half, but they were beset by cold shooting in the second half. They made 28 percent of their shots (7 of 25) after the break, including 3 of 16 (18.8 percent) from 3-point range.
"The fact of the matter is you can't shoot 30 percent in the second half and turn the ball over that many times and expect to win," North Texas coach Grant McCasland said. "In the first half, we showed some composure, but in the second half, it got a little long for us. A good learning experience, but I prefer to learn and win."
Nine second-half turnovers turned into 12 second-half points for the Rams.
"Unfortunately we turned the ball over at some key moments late in the game that propelled them," McCasland said. "We're a young team, and I love them. I just need to do a better job at helping them."
North Texas was led by redshirt sophomore Umoja Gibson, who scored 20 points for a second consecutive game, making five 3-pointers on 10 attempts. Gibson is averaging a team-best 12.8 points per game. Friday was Gibson's seventh career game where he scored at least 20 points.
Graduate transfer Deng Geu finished with a season-high 13 rebounds, matching the total he grabbed for North Dakota State last season in a win over Northland College.
The Aggies have a 9-1 edge in the all-time series against the Mean Green.
--Field Level Media