Utah State head men’s basketball coach Ryan Odom. Photo by Lorene Hale.
SAN DIEGO – With under 15 seconds to go in a tied ballgame at 89 apiece in San Diego, Utah State guard Steven Ashworth brought the ball up the court. Initially isolated against San Diego’s Sigu Sisoho Jawara on the right side, Ashworth reversed course and went around a Dan Akin screen. Jawara went under the screen so Ashworth stopped, popped, and nailed a 20-foot two-point shot to put Utah State up 91-89 with four seconds to play.
Ashworth didn’t have time to celebrate what would eventually become the game-winner as the Aggies had to defend a final desperation shot from San Diego. Jawara took the ball right down the court and Ashworth had to get back and contest Jawara’s 3-point attempt. The ball rattled out and Utah State was finally able to breath a sigh of relief.
That Ashworth was even available to play was a minor miracle for the Aggies. Late in USU’s previous game, the senior guard rolled his ankle on a closeout and couldn’t put weight on that ankle. Fortunately, the injury wasn’t nearly as bad as it appeared and Ashworth was able to play.
“Steven’s a tough guy and nothing ever surprises me with Steven in terms of him getting out there,” Odom said.
Though overtime was ultimately a successful thing for the Aggies, the fact the extra period even happened was a stroke of cruel luck for Utah State. After overcoming an early 9-0 deficit, slow starts on offense from Taylor Funk and Sean Bairstow, the Aggies had clawed their way to a 78-75 lead with 18 seconds left to play. All Utah State needed was a stop, a rebound and maybe a couple free throws to ice the game. Unfortunately, San Diego got three shots on their final trip down the court.
The first shot by the Toreros missed, as did a second after San Diego’s 17th offensive rebound of the game. Dan Akin corralled the rebound but fell to the floor and was called for a travel and San Diego got one last chance with five seconds on the clock.
On the inbounds pass, San Diego found Eric Williams who’d been having a huge night with 37 points by that moment. Williams caught the pass in the corner, rose high and fired a three and drilled it to give himself 40 on the night and his team life in the game.
Odom said the plan on that final play was to try and foul before a shot if they got the chance. The Aggies just didn’t get that chance.
“Had they thrown it out towards half court or up we would have fouled and put them at the line,” Odom said. “I told our guys not to foul as they were going towards a shot, just to contest it really hard and switch out, hopefully, and not allow them to catch and force them to throw it our or throw it inside the (3-point) line. But it didn’t happen. (Williams) ended up getting it and just jumped and made an unbelievable shot.”
In overtime San Diego took an 84-80 lead with 2:46 left on the clock. Williams, who hit the game-tying shot at the end of regulation, hit another three to give himself 43 on the night to go with 13 rebounds.
“Williams was incredible all game,” Odom said. “Really hard for us to match him.”
The Aggies weren’t short of players who could make big shots, though. Shortly after Williams put San Diego up by four, Max Shulga drilled a three to pull USU back.
“That was a huge shot for us,” Odom said of Shulga’s shot. “One of many that happened throughout the night.”
A few possessions later, with the game tied at 86, Taylor Funk hit a huge shot of his own – a 3-pointer to put USU back on top again. For Funk, that shot was the tail end of a major turnaround for him. The graduate transfer from St. Joseph’s missed his first five 3-point attempts and had just three points through the first 30 minutes of the game. But Funk made five of his final six shots, all of those makes being 3-pointers, to score 17 points in the final 11:20 of the game.
“Taylor’s always going to be a guy that his teammates and coaches are going to have the upmost confidence in,” Odom said. “If he misses two or three in a row we’re like ‘shoot the next one my man.’”
Even after Williams fouled out and had to take a permanent seat on the bench, San Diego kept pushing and with 17 seconds on the clock, Marcellus Earlington got an and-one to fall and made the free throw to tie the game at 89. That’s when Ashworth made his game-winner and San Diego just didn’t have the time to match it.
For all the fight San Diego put into keeping itself alive late in the game, Utah State did much of the same earlier in fighting back from an early deficit. The Toreros led for nearly every minute of the first half as the Aggies floundered on offense, turning the ball over and missing open shots.
“We were on our heels the beginning of the game,” Odom said. “We had some turnovers that were not typical for us at this stage.”
Utah State fought through those struggles though to keep up with San Diego and went into the half only down 31-30.
“Everything was going against us throughout that game. We got off to a slow start. They’re making extremely tough shots at times,” “They’re getting to the free throw line, they’re rebounds. The odds were stacked there for a bit. For us to even be down one at half was a win at that point.”
Shulga was huge in that effort, scoring 14 of his 20 points in the first half to give USU offense when it was badly needed. Dan Akin likewise played a big role, though initially his impact came more on the glass. Utah State were hemorrhaging offensive boards as San Diego got second chances almost at will. Akin fought in the paint to secure more rebounds and he finished with 15 boards overall to lead the Aggies. Akin also led the Aggies in scoring with 21.
Utah State ultimately had three players finish with 20-plus points. Akin had his 21 while Shulga and Funk each contributed 20. Ashworth finished with 10 points and a career-high nine assists.
The Aggies will come home for their next game, a matchup with Oral Roberts, a team that’s started of the year 2-2. It’s the first team USU will play this season that isn’t undefeated at the time of playing the Aggies. That game will take place on Tuesday with a tip-off time of 7 p.m.