HONOLULU – Utah State brushed off an embarrassing loss to Weber State earlier this week, putting forth its best defensive game of the season in an 84-56 blowout victory over Seattle in the Aggies’ opening game in the Hawaii Airlines Diamond Head Classic.
“It was a really big win for us, especially coming after a loss like that,” Aggie guard Max Shulga said. “It’s good to get back on track.”
“We challenged our guys in a couple of different things going into this game,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “And I thought throughout the game our guys were up for the fight.”
Defense has been the one key weakness for the Aggies this season, nearly costing them in multiple outings and finally burning them in the upset loss to the Wildcats on Monday. Those defensive weaknesses were not present in the slightest in Hawaii as USU held Seattle to 29 percent shooting, the lowest the Aggies have allowed since Dec. 11, 2021 in an 82-50 win over New Orleans.
Odom said he showed his team a bunch of clips of the Weber State game where the Aggies struggled on that end of the floor.
“We were not intentional (against Weber State),” Odom said. “We were not intense. We were not into the ball-handler. And you can’t play defense that way. So our guys took that to heart. And that’s the great thing about this team. They’re very open and honest with themselves and are willing to look in the mirror and respond.”
Utah State’s opening minutes weren’t an offensive showcase, starting 3-of-9 from the field and largely just keeping pace with Seattle. The two sides were tied 15-15 with 10:08 left in the first half. That’s when the run began for the Aggies, although its defensive dominance had already started.
Seattle went 1-for-19 over a span of 12 minutes in the first half, the USU defense turning up the pressure on the Redhawks. Meanwhile the Aggies gradually heated up on offense. It took a while to get things going, but over a span of nearly eight minutes USU manufactured an 18-3 run to go up 33-18 with two minutes left in the half. Seattle did get a little of that back so the Aggies went into halftime with a 12-point lead, 36-24.
“We were just trading baskets at the start and it took us a couple of defensive stops, stops and scores, and that’s what got us going,” Shulga said. “And then we just stuck with it the rest of the game. We couldn’t relax like we did in the last game.”
At the start of the second half, Seattle made a brief push, whittling the lead to nine points thanks to a couple of quick baskets by Cameron Tyson. But the Aggies responded with another big push, a 10-0 run spanning less than a minute. That push took the game into blowout territory. Taylor Funk, who had made just two of his last 13 threes since returning from a one-game absence with an ankle injury, made two triples in that run to break out of his slump. Funk wound up going 3-of-7 from three in the game after starting 0-for-4.
“He got loose and certainly we’ve all been pulling for that to happen,” Odom said. “Obviously, he has the ankle injury and he comes back and doesn’t have the typical game that he’s had. It was great to see him play the way that he did.”
Utah State didn’t let up one bit even after building a 20-point lead in the second half. There may not have been another kill shot run, but the Aggies kept the pressure up on defense through the final whistle. And that defense helped fuel the offense throughout the game.
“It’s just what we do,” Shulga said. “We get stops and then we run in transition. That’s who we are and that’s who we’re going to try and continue to be. It always starts on defense for us and then we just flow into our offense.”
Steven Ashworth led the Aggies in scoring with 17 points. He was one of five Utah State players to reach double figures, joined by Dan Akin (15), Sean Bairstow (13), Shulga (12) and Funk (11). Shulga recorded his third double-double of the season by also grabbing 10 rebounds. He also tied with Ashworth for the team lead in assists with four.
Utah State must now quickly turn around to face an SMU team that upset Iona earlier on Thursday. SMU was ranked 291 in the NET with Iona being 43rd in the same metric. The Mustangs overcame a 14-point halftime deficit to win 85-81.
The game between the Aggies and SMU will tip off at 5 p.m. on Friday in Hawai’i. If Utah State defeats the Mustangs it will play in the championship round of the tournament against a to-be-determined opponent.