LOGAN – As the Utah State men’s basketball team huddled up for the final time before taking the court for its season opener, senior and captain Sean Bairstow had a message for his fellow players.
“Nobody’s going to worry about their offense. We’re going to win this game with our defense.”
That statement set the tone for what would be a defensive clinic by the Aggies in their eventual 75-58 win over Utah Valley in the team’s season opener Monday evening. The Wolverines shot just 32.8 percent from the field the entire game. Their leading returning scorer, Trey Woodbury, made just 4-of-12 field goals and was 0-for-3 on threes.
Shutting down Woodbury was obviously a priority and the Aggies were able to limit him when he was on the floor. Max Shulga and Zee Hamoda were the primary defenders for Woodbury and Odom praised their effectiveness in “forcing Woodbury into some really hard shots.” Bairstow noted that “all the contests were there” for his shots.
“He’s a tough guard,” Odom said of Woodbury. “He can draw a ton of fouls. And for us to remained disciplined while guarding him, forcing him to make some hard shots, that was a good sign for us going forward.”
There was one key to limiting Woodbury in this game: foul trouble. He picked up three fouls in the first half and sat most of it. He then picked up a fourth foul early in the second, sending him to the bench again.
With Woodbury off the floor for the most part, it left the door open for Utah State to break open the game. The Aggies didn’t quite do that early on, though. The game remained close until late in the first half. With 6:49 left in the game, USU’s lead was only three, 25-22. A big part of that was UVU’s big-man, Aziz Bandaogo. The 7-footer led the Wolverines with 17 points, going 7-of-9 from the field and wreaking havoc at times on the inside for USU on both ends.
“Obviously, had a great game. We were not expecting him to start in the game. We were expecting (Tim) Fuller to start at the five,” Odom said. “Knocked in two threes in the first half. Obviously wasn’t too excited about that but maybe that’s his game and he can do that going forward. But clearly he impacted (the game) at the rim.”
But even with Bandaogo causing issues, the Aggies found their spark on offense late in the first half, closing the first 20 minutes on a 16-5 run to take a 41-28 lead at the break. The end of that run featured several huge buckets. Bairstow hit a late-in-the-shot-clock triple from several feet behind the arc. Taylor Funk, not to be outdone, pulled up with his heels on the mid-court logo and drained it for the final points of the first half.
Utah Valley didn’t take that run lying down. Slowly but surely the Wolverines climbed back into the game, cutting the lead to single digits by mid-way through the second half and eventually pulling to within four, 55-51, with 9:43 to play. But as Bairstow said pregame, defense would win the game as UVU would only score seven points for the remainder of the game while USU put up 20 more to close it out.
The offense was by no means a complete side-show to the defense. Utah State showcased the passing chops it had last year with 17 assists as a team. Rylan Jones led the way in that category as he had eight by himself. Steven Ashworth came in second with five assists to go with his nine points off the bench.
Scoring-wise USU had three players in double-figures. Bairstow poured in 15 first-half points and ended with a game-high 19. He went 2-for-2 from three on the night. And for someone who shot just 12.5 percent from downtown last year, it was a relief to shoot that well.
“Not gonna lie, that was a great feeling to see the ball go through the hoop,” Bairstow said. “Big confidence-builder for me, looking to building off of it.”
Shulga added 14 points to be the third-leading scorer and had six rebounds. Taylor Funk posted a double-double with 18 points and a career-high 14 rebounds. That rebounding effort was a bit of a surprise to those who saw his 6.6 per game rebounding average from last year. But that rebounding prowess wasn’t a surprise to Odom
“When we recruited him, we felt like, obviously, you see the pretty jump shot. You see his offensive game, but in the recruiting process, he’s proven at a high level that he can get rebounds, too,” Odom said. “Was I expecting him to get 14 or will get 14 every night? No, he won’t. But, it was great to see that and just snatching some balls there that were kind of loose at times and blocking out and getting it. I’m really proud of that.”
The Aggies won their season opener for the first time since the 2019-20 season (the year they started with seven straight wins). Monday’s win also elevated USU to 14-0 all-time against UVU.