FILE PHOTO: Max Shulga drives with the ball against Trey Edmonds from Utah Tech. Photo by Lorene Hale
LAS VEGAS – Utah State may have won by double digits, 79-67, over Loyola Marymount late Saturday evening/Sunday morning in Las Vegas, but late in the first half it wasn’t looking like the Aggies would take home its eighth straight win to start the year.
With 7:19 left in the first half, Lions guard Cam Shelton drained a second straight 3-pointer to put his team up 27-19 over the Aggies and giving him 16 points just under 13 minutes into the game. A mere 58 seconds later Shelton’s teammates, Justin Ahrens and Keli Leaupepe, had added five more points to give LMU its largest lead of the game, 32-19. USU head coach Ryan Odom had no choice but to call timeout.
“None of us were happy at that point,” Odom said. “We weren’t playing our style of basketball. We’re taking shots at the rim that were very unlike us, just kind of hoping that the shot would go in, flipping it up like it didn’t really mean much. And we wasted some opportunities there and you can’t do that.”
Shelton in particular was a nasty thorn in USU’s side, scoring not only the 16 points through 13 minutes, but 23 by the end of the first half on 8-of-11 shooting.
“We just weren’t as tight on our ball-screen coverages in the first half,” junior guard Steven Ashworth said. “And (Shelton) was making some great plays. Had a few step-back threes that, when guys can make shots like that makes it hard to guard going at the rim.”
“(Shelton) made the exact plays that we talked about going into the game. And so our entire group was frustrated,” Odom said.
Despite that adversity and early failure, Utah State kept calm with the knowledge that there was plenty of game time ahead. And slowly but surely the Aggies clawed back, starting with a 13-1 run to draw within one points, 33-32 and eventually being down just three, 39-36 at halftime.
Getting close wound up being the easy part, getting the lead itself back turned out to be a chore. Seven separate times during Utah State’s comeback it drew within one point until finally a Trevin Dorius free throw with 15:22 left in the second half tied the game up at 48-48 and a Taylor Funk dunk gave USU its first lead in just over 17 minutes. After that, the Aggies never trailed again, gradually flipping the game to a double-digit lead in their favor.
The number one key in flipping the table on Loyola was shutting down Shelton, which the Aggies did in a huge way. The senior guard failed to make a single field goal in the second half, going 0-for-7 and ended the night with 25 points.
“It was definitely an emphasis after the first half that he put up on us,” Ashworth said. “We were talking at halftime just how we could – instead of just trying to guard him with one guy, guard him with five. And I think we did a much better job in the second half of guarding him as a team.”
Loyola’s offense dried up with Shelton’s disappearance, shooting 23.1 percent from the floor in the second half. Utah State meanwhile relied on a balanced offense with four players scoring between 14 and 18 points – Max Shulga (18), Ashworth (16), Sean Bairstow (14) and Dan Akin (14) – to eclipse 75 points for the eighth straight game (i.e. every game this year).
Bairstow, Shulga and Akin’s scoring was huge for the Aggies who were once again pushed off the 3-point line. Utah State began the year attempting nearly 28 threes per contest through six games and were ranked first in the country in 3-point percentage. But San Francisco and Loyola Marymount did as much as possible to make the Aggies score inside the arc. Utah State has taken just 32 combined threes in its last two games (and made just seven).
“The coaching staff and us as players were talking at halftime,” Ashworth said, “about different ways that we can get guys open looks and a lot of it was reading our closeouts and attacking the down the lane. Sean and Max did a great job with that. I felt like I had a few opportunities myself. And when we were doing that we just get in a rhythm together.”
In the last two games, with SF and LMU taking away the three, Bairstow, Shulga and Akin have combined to score 47 and 48 points, respectively. Dorius also turned in a quality game on Saturday, impacting the game beyond his stat line of seven points and eight rebounds (though the points total is his second-highest of the year and the rebounds is a season high).
“The biggest things with Trevin and what we’ve encouraged him to do is not overthink things,” Odom said. “The biggest thing he can do is be him, which is 7-foot. Which is 250 pounds or whatever he weighs. And play energetic and play intense and crash the glass.”
Utah State are now 8-0 for just the fourth time in program history. The last time the Aggies were undefeated through eight games was the 1961-62 season. The best-ever start to a season at USU is 9-0, accomplished by both the 1917-18 and 1938-39 teams. Utah State’s next two games are home contests against non-DI Westminster and Weber State (ranked 328 in the NET). The game against Westminster will take place on Thursday with a 7 p.m. tip-off time.