Steven Ashworth. Photo by Sean Greene
LOGAN – With 3:55 left on the clock in Utah State’s 75-71 win over UNLV, head coach Ryan Odom called a time out. The Aggies had just given up the lead to the Rebels to go down 66-65 in front of its own crowd. During the huddle, assistant head coach Matt Henry made a simple comment to the players.
“We’re gonna win this game,” Henry said as recalled by USU guard Steven Ashworth.
And just like the students, who chant “I believe that we will win” prior to the game, Utah State believed in it’s ability to pull off this victory. And to do that, it got contributions from everyone.
A handful of minutes after the time out, UNLV still held the lead, 69-68, with just over a minute to play. And with the shot clock winding down the Aggies very much needed a good shot. Ashworth flared from the left wing to the top of the 3-point line, caught a pass from Taylor Funk and, upon finding himself wide open, proceeded to sink a massive 3-pointer to put USU up by two points with 1:09 on the clock.
“There was some type of action where they got mixed up on a switch and I was able to fade out to the top of the key,” Ashworth said. “I think there was about five seconds left on the shot clock and I knew that it was good and so I let it go and it dropped.”
On the very next play, with UNLV seeking to tie or re-take the lead, Dan Akin drew an offensive foul on UNLV’s Keyshawn Hall, the very same who had been lighting up the Aggies to the tune of 19 points on 6-for-11 shooting. It was a huge defensive possession and the crowd responded with a classic Spectrum Magic roar. Even the non-students, who rarely stand like the HURD does for the entire game, were up on their feet and bringing the energy.
“Throughout my entire time at the Spectrum I knew that there would always be the HURD in that corner and the question was what is the community gonna bring,” Ashworth said. “And man, they’ve been bringing it this year and it’s something that’s super-special to be a part of.”
With its two-point lead and possession of the ball and just 51 seconds to go, Utah State had the chance to ice the game by draining clock and then going up four or five points. Except the only thing the Aggies initially succeeded in was draining clock.
Ashworth dribbled out 20 seconds before driving into the paint and getting stranded. He called a time out but there was just two seconds on the shot clock. USU would have only that to get a shot off or risk UNLV taking off the remaining clock and potentially hitting a walk-off, game-winning shot.
The Aggies ran a baseline out-of-bounds set where Max Shulga found an open Sean Bairstow who hit a mid-range jumper to give his team exactly what it needed in the moment – a 73-69 lead.
HUGE bucket from Bairstow. Aggies go up 73-69 over UNLV with 21.9 seconds left. pic.twitter.com/B6CqIZRBJm
— Jason Walker (@jwalker_sports) January 18, 2023
“Coach (had) a great play that we executed well,” Ashworth said. “Right from point-to-point-to-point. We had option one, it wasn’t there. Option two wasn’t there so we knew option three was going to be there and Sean hit a big-time shot.”
Utah State yielded a pair of free throws to UNLV on the next possession with 16 seconds still on the clock. So with a two-point lead again the Aggies then had to make free throws. This time Shulga had to step up and make shots – which he did. After USU managed to drain eight seconds off the clock while UNLV chased them around the court to foul them, Shulga made a pair of free throws that effectively ended the game.
Winning this game required overcoming many things. On the one hand, UNLV were a team who really, really needed a win. The Rebels had started conference play 1-4 and overall had lost five of their last seven games.
“UNLV gave us every ounce of effort,” Odom said. “We knew we were going to be facing a very determined, not desperate, but a very determined team. And our goal was to be just as determined if not more.”
Utah State also had to overcome its own numerous mistakes. The Aggies committed a season-high 21 turnovers and those turnovers created runs for UNLV.
In the first half, USU’s nine turnovers were an annoyance, but not catastrophic by any means. That was largely thanks to Funk’s 20 first-half points. He made 6-of-8 threes in the first half alone and had a fastbreak dunk for good measure.
“It was like a video game out there. So much fun just watching him shoot it like it was a workout,” Ashworth said. “Just pushing the ball, thinking the entire time, ‘Where’s Taylor?’ He was hitting and it was huge for us in the first half to get us off to the start that we needed.”
Trevin Dorius also had a stellar first half – or more accurately a stellar first three minutes and 54 seconds. The 7-foot-1 center scored nine points in the first four minutes of the game, eating alive the small-ball starting lineup UNLV had trotted out.
“Trevin attacking the switches early in the game and rolling down in there and posting up was a big factor for us,” Odom said. “We were able to throw it in there and get some easy baskets and that opened up some for Taylor.”
These first-half showcases gave USU at 46-37 halftime lead, but that lead couldn’t withstand the Aggies’ early second-half mistakes. Utah State didn’t waste any time in the second half in opening the door to UNLV getting back into the game. Of the first seven possessions in the second half for USU, six ended in turnovers. That allowed the Rebels to get back within a possession less than three minutes into the second half.
Utah State’s saving grace in a game with 21 giveaways was its solid passing aside from those iffy plays. The Aggies had 21 assists, likely the key to countering those turnovers according to Odom.
“It’s not certainly a goal of Utah State’s to have 20-plus turnovers,” Odom said. “But when you have 21 assists that’s probably the answer. We had enough plays where that ball was moving and they were chasing it and we got quality looks.”
In the end, though, despite the mistakes Utah State made, the team made plays when it counted. And it has the Aggies back to their winning ways. They’re now 4-0 in games following losses and will have a chance to get on a winning streak for the first time in multiple weeks when San Jose State comes to Logan. That game will tip off at 4 p.m. on Saturday in the Spectrum. The Spartans are coming off a 77-57 loss to New Mexico in The Pit.