Utah State guard Sean Bairstow (2) drives around Air Force forward Rytis Petraitis (31) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at Air Force Academy, Colo., Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. (Parker Seibold/The Gazette via AP)
COLORADO SPRINGS – Utah State didn’t make its 77-65 win over Air Force easy on itself despite building a 21-point lead in the first half and had to sweat out the last few minutes clinging to a borderline double-digit lead, constantly on the cusp of leaving the door open for the Falcons to steal a win.
Utah State didn’t make a field goal in the final eight minutes and 39 seconds of the game, making it that much harder to outlast a push from a young Air Force team determined to hold its own against the 23rd-ranked team in the NET.
The Aggies were up 44-28 at the end of the first half, courtesy of shooting 65.5 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes. Most of that production came inside the arc as USU sought to exploit its extreme height advantage. The Aggies took 20 of its 30 first-half shots inside the paint and wound up scoring 32 points inside the key.
“Obviously, we’re a really good shooting team but I think we’re the best when we get inside the paint and make two-foot plays in that lane,” Utah State forward Taylor Funk said. “Either create for yourself or create for others. And we started doing that early which then led to easier shots around the rim, and then we found some shots along the outside.”
Air Force began to make a push toward the end of the first half, chipping Utah State’s 21-point advantage with 3:26 left in the first down to the 16-point one the Aggies had at the break. Then, to start the second half, the Falcons made 7-of-9 field goals following Utah State’s example of going to the paint for points, and drew to within seven points, 56-49 with just over 10 minutes to play.
“I just don’t think we were in our stance, ready to go when they had the ball,” Funk said of his team’s defense early in the second half. “Got beat on a couple back doors, a couple and-ones and just like that the game can switch around. It just goes to show no matter what the lead is you can’t just relax.”
While Air Force found its rhythm in the second half, the Aggies were knocked out of theirs. They dipped from shooting nearly 66 percent from the field to just 30 precent in the second half; something head coach Ryan Odom attributed partly due to not getting stops that leads to transition opportunities.
“We weren’t able to run at that point,” Odom said. “Our offense was a little bit stagnant at that point because they were getting baskets on that end of the floor.”
That 56-49 score was the end result of a 17-7 run by Air Force, powered in part by seven points from Falcons leading scorer Jake Heidbreder (he had a game-leading 19 overall). But the Aggies responded with a resounding 8-2 run that took less than two minutes of time off the clock, forcing Air Force to call a time out. But a 3-pointer made by Funk in the middle of that run, scored with 8:39 on the clock and putting Utah State up 62-51, would be the final made field goal of the night for the Aggies.
The fact that Utah State didn’t make a field goal for nine straight minutes was hidden well by the 15 free throws the Aggies made in those same nine minutes. Funk himself said he didn’t even realize his team hadn’t made a shot for such a long stretch, but obviously knew how big his team’s performance on the charity stripe was.
“Free throws were big there for sure,” Funk said. “We knew they were a scrappy team and when the ball gets in the paint around the rim they like to take it. They like to just go after it and it did lead to some fouls and it led to some misses for us. But again free throws were huge and proud of these guys for knocking them down.”
Utah State went 15-18 on free throws in that final nine-minute stretch and 21-for-27 on the night overall.
Just as important as finding offense in some way was finding a way to stop Air Force, which the Aggies did toward the end. The Falcons made just two of its final nine field goal attempts, scoring just seven points over the final nine minutes of the game.
Funk led all Utah State scorers with 16 points, going 6-for-11 overall on the night and 2-of-4 from three. It was a big night for the graduate forward considering in the last three games he’s averaged 7.7 points on 33 percent shooting overall and 11 percent shooting from three. But Funk’s confidence never waivered.
“It happens to everyone,” Funk said of his slump. “No confidence was ever dropped. I think every shot’s going in, so do my teammates. Definitely felt nice to see the ball go trough the hoop but I don’t really think about it too much. I never once said I was in a drought. Never once said I was cold.”
Three other Aggies reached double figures. Steven Ashworth had 15 points and a team-leading eight rebounds. Sean Bairstow had 11 points, six rebounds and four assists (which led the team). Max Shulga also had 11 points.
Utah State’s next game will be a road matchup with Boise State. The Broncos edged by San Jose State on Tuesday by a score of 67-64, moving them to an 11-4 record on the year and a 2-0 start to Mountain West play, the same as the Aggies. Saturday’s game between USU and BSU will tip off at 4:30 p.m.