Sean Bairstow drives to the basket. Photo by Tina Lerohl
LAS VEGAS — Utah State steamrolled Air Force 83 to 56 and advance to the quarterfinal of the Mountain West Basketball Championship.
The 27-point margin of victory set a record for the Aggies’ biggest Mountain West Tournament win in program history, passing a 26-point victory against San Jose State in 2017.
With 12:27 left in the game, forward Brandon Horvath slammed home a two-handed dunk. The flush put the Aggies up by 19. The play illustrated Horvath’s dominance down low against the Falcons.
“I think my teammates were just looking for me,” Horvath said. “I just kept rolling the guards into the post and my teammates kept finding me, and I just got going.”
Horvath has excelled down the stretch. This performance was his 13th-straight game scoring in double digits. He finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds and two assists.
“I thought Brandon was huge,” head coach Ryan Odom said. “He wouldn’t be sitting (on the podium) if he wasn’t.”
Horvath was a key factor in the first half. He propelled the Aggies to an 11-point lead at halftime despite Utah State shooting 36.4% from the field.
In the second half, the Aggies had a surge in offensive efficiency. They made six threes and shot 81.0% from the field to build a 31-point lead.
“We pushed through some drives and made some really good offensive plays,” Odom said. “It was a balanced attack.”
Along with Horvath, four other Aggies finished with double-digit points. Forward Justin Bean hit two threes on his way to 16 points.
In his first game back from injury, guard Steven Ashworth put together a solid performance off the bench.
“He looked pretty normal to me,” Odom said. “Steven’s a warrior. He’s a tough guy. He’s committed to doing everything he can to take care of his body. And he’s going to get in there and fight for position and sometimes you end up getting hurt.”
Ashworth racked up 11 points, six assists and two steals in the contest.
Another quality performance came from guard Sean Bairstow. His night was summed up with a dunk he had in the second half. With 10:43 left on the clock, Bean kicked out to Baristow who drove in from the 3-point arc and brought down the house with a monster one-handed jam.
“Sean’s dunk was awesome,” Horvath said. “I see that athleticism all the time in practice. It was nice to see him do it in the game.”
Bairstow tallied 11 points, four rebounds and an assist against the Falcons.
Guard Max Shulga put together another solid performance from beyond the arc. He hit three triples on his way to 11 points. Shulga continues to impress his coach, teammates and opposing teams with his performance despite the conflict in his home country of Ukraine.
“He’s handled it with grace,” Odom said. “He’s handled it as well as anyone could possibly do it and his play has elevated. I just wanted to say publicly that his teammates and his coaches love him.”
Before the game, Air Force delivered cookies decorated in the colors of Ukraine to Shulga. Air Force head coach Joe Scott said the cookies were meant as a sign of support.
“Everyone knows what’s going on within Ukraine and it’s hard to watch and see,” Scott said. “It was one way for us to be able to say… as we compete against each other, we’re really all in the same team here and I think that’s really important during this time.”
Before Odom would talk about the game, he mentioned the gesture of support.
“It really did touch us that Air Force did that,” Odom said. “They didn’t have to do that. And I really appreciate them doing that.”
With the victory, Utah State advances to the quarterfinals and will face No. 2 seeded Colorado State. Tip-off is scheduled for Thursday, March 9 at 7 p.m. MST. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.