It wasn't until the post-game press conference that first-year Utah State coach Jerry Finkbeiner learned how close he'd come to remaining winless in his new job Tuesday.
Devyn Christensen's deep 3-pointer with a defender all over her and 7.4 seconds on the clock lifted the Aggies to a 67-66 win over Prairie View A&M, a win that provided a warm welcome home for Wasilla's Jenna Johnson and a thrilling start for the Great Alaska Shootout.
The play had been diagrammed seconds before during a timeout and Finkbeiner said it worked to perfection.
Then Christensen and Johnson told their version. Both thought the 3-pointer was off-target.
"It was the one shot tonight I didn't think was going in," said Christenson, who buried six treys on her way to a game-high 24 points.
"I looked at it," said Johnson, "and I thought, oh boy, I better get the rebound. And then it went in and I was like,' Yay, Devyn!"
Finkbeiner, sitting between the two, looked bemused. "That's new news," he said.
It was news to no one that Christensen would be the one to take the shot for the Aggies (1-3). The preseason Player of the Year in the Western Athletic Conference, Christensen is a scoring machine with range. She hit 6 of 14 attempts from 3-point range and 8 of 21 overall
Tuesday to score 24 points, one point above her average.
She drilled 3-pointers on both of Utah State's final possessions, the first one tying the game 64-64 with 27 seconds left and the second providing the winning margin.
Finkbeiner said the plan was for Christensen to take the shot with enough time left for Utah State to rebound and get off another shot in the event Christensen missed.
But she didn't miss, giving Prairie View a last shot at victory and forcing the Aggies to get back on defense. In those waning seconds, another hero emerged for Utah State -- Cristal Turner, whose defense on Prairie View star Latia Williams in the final seconds preserved the victory. The 6-foot-3 Turner isolated the 5-10 Williams near the sideline, far from the basket, denying her a look at the hoop.
"She put a spider web around her," Finkbeiner said.
It was a fast-paced game between two up-tempo teams that entered the game a combined 0-5 but put on a show far better than their records would have suggested. Both teams shot better than 40 percent while trading the lead 12 times and sharing it three times.
"It was an exciting opening game for the tournament," said Prairie View coach Toyelle Wilson, who praised Christensen's cool.
"I told the girls, 'Make sure you stick on 4. Don't lose her,' " she said. "She's the Player of the Year. She's gonna do what she's gonna do."
Prairie View (0-3) was in a position to win thanks to a rally that brought the Panthers back from a 51-39 deficit midway through the second half.
"As a team, we fought, we tried, we pushed at the end," said Williams, who finished with 17 points on 8 of 12 shooting, eight rebounds and five assists.
Kiara Etienne (21 points, 5 of 11 from 3-point range) and Larissa Scott (10 points, eight of them in the final nine minutes) sparked the rally, scoring 14 of their team's final 16 points.
Christensen, a 5-7 senior guard, had a stellar all-around game -- she hit 6 of 14 from 3-point range and 8 of 21 overall to go along with eight assists, five rebounds and four steals.
Johnson, a 5-10 senior forward, finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks in her first game at Sullivan Arena since leading Wasilla to the 2008 Class 4A state championship.
She had a chance to give her team a bit of breathing room when she went to the free throw line with 1:28 left and the Aggies ahead 61-60.
But she missed the front end of a bonus shot and Prairie View got the rebound and a quick basket from Etienne to go up 62-61.
Johnson recalled that she had been in a similar situation four years ago at the state championships.
"I made it then and I missed it now," she said with a grin. "You'd think I'd be better four years later."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
PRAIRIE VIEW (66) -- Jackson 1-7 0-0 3; Burton 0-1 0-0 0; Scott 5-12 0-0 10; Williams 8-12 1-3 17; Etienne 8-19 0-0 21; Washington 0-0 0-0 0; Overshown 1-1- 2-2 4; Darjean 0-0 0-0 0; Scott 2-6 0-0 5; Azore Chelsea 3-4 0-2 6; Lacey 0-0 0-0 0; Hampton-Finch 0-0 0-0 0; Totals 28-62 3-7 66.
UTAH STATE (67) -- Christensen 8-21 2-2 24; Johnson 4-11 2-3 10; Williams 0-2 1-1 1; Bairstow 2-8 0-0 4; Vaaulu 6-6 1-2 13; Nelson 1-1 0-0 2; Schlott 1-2 1-2 3; Thompson 0-1 0-0 0; Furtado 0-0 0-0 0; Turner 4-8 0-1 10; Totals 26-60 7-12 67.
PRAIRIE VIEW 34 32 -- 66
UTAH STATE 36 31 -- 67
3-point goals -- Prairie View 7-17 (Jackson 1-4; Etienne 5-11; Scott 1-2;). Utah State 8-28 (Christensen 6-14; Johnson 0-3; Williams 0-1; Bairstow 0-4; Schlott 0-1; Turner 2-5). Rebounds -- Prairie View 34 (Scott 9); Utah State 39 (Bairstow 8). Total fouls -- Prairie View 11; Utah State 10. Fouled out -- none. Assists -- Prairie View 26 (Jackson 7); Utah State 15 (Christensen 8). Turnovers -- Prairie View 18 (Jackson 5); Utah State 18 (Johnson, Schlott 3). Steals -- Prairie View 9 (Scott 3); Utah State 17 (Christensen 3). Blocked shots -- Prairie View 0; Utah State 6 (Johnson, Bairstow 2). Referees -- Jump, Lujan, Butler. A -- 4,221
By BETH BRAGG