Logan • It was the last chance, and it bounced out. Ben Clifford's shoulders slumped.
His attempt at a game-tying 3-pointer again was off, bringing an 0-for-9 night to a gut-punch conclusion in a 51-48 defeat to Louisiana Tech on Jan. 26.
To Clifford, this was the low point, the dark valley of the season. Since then, Utah State has been steadily climbing back to wins, and it's been all the more refreshing for the sophomore forward.
"I really think that game was a turning point for this team we have now," Clifford said. "We've realized we all have to work hard. And if you climb the hill, it's more rewarding than if you take a helicopter to the top."
What he means is this: Winning has not come easily. And Clifford's performances this year have been rocky at times.
As hard as it may be to believe, Clifford is now the most seasoned active Aggie. His 58 games for Utah State are the most of anyone on the roster, and he's been called upon to serve a bigger role as the only healthy player whose natural role is the four-spot.
In the six starts he's made since Kyisean Reed's injury, he hasn't been a star, but he's played a key part in helping the new-look Aggies succeed.
"He's a competitive, tough guy that plays with intensity every day, who plays with activity and effort," assistant coach Tim Duryea said. "That just carries over. He has really done a lot of good things that nobody sees."
Some improvements are obvious. In his recent six starts, his points (6.5 per game), rebounds (6.2 per game) and blocks (1.2 per game) are all higher.
But the way Clifford stretches the floor with his ability to shoot helps Utah State's court spacing. The way he screens creates openings for teammates to shoot. He doesn't always get the rebounds, but he gets his hands on most boards and keeps them alive for Jarred Shaw or Spencer Butterfield.
"I guess you could say he's our glue guy," Duryea said. "He's the glue that makes our offense work better."
Clifford acknowledges that his college game has evolved a great deal from his high school years. As a redshirt freshman practicing against the likes of Ty Wesley, he learned quickly that simply being physical would not take him as far as it had when he was young.
"In high school, I was always the biggest, tallest, strongest, but that's not really the case at this level," he said. "I learned to get anything done in practice I need to have more effort and use my brain more than my body."
One area where Utah State can still ask more of him is his shooting. Clifford has shot 37.7 percent this season, a marked decline from last season. But the Aggies expect that the ball will eventually bounce in their veteran's favor.
He believes it, too.
"I think with Kyisean going down, I realized I can't be in a slump anymore, it just can't happen," Clifford said. "Getting that type of attitude helped me. I should've had that all season."
Denver at Utah State
O At Dee Glen Smith Spectrum (Logan)
Tipoff • Thursday, 7 p.m.
TV • KMYU. Radio • 97.5 FM
Records • Denver 15-8, 11-2; Utah State 17-5, 8-4
Series history • Utah State leads, 54-36
Last meeting • Jan. 19 at Denver; DU 68, USU 57
About the Aggies • Are on a three-game winning streak after losing four in a row in WAC play. … Spencer Butterfield has been among Utah State's best rebounders and shooters, collecting his fifth straight double-double in San Jose.
About the Pioneers • Denver is tied for second in the WAC standings with New Mexico State after winning its last four WAC games. … The Pioneers hold opponents to an average of 55.3 points per game, good for the top scoring defense in the WAC.