Utah State rallies from down 11, clutches out win vs SJSU – Cache Valley Daily

LOGAN – Utah State held the lead for only four minutes and 16 seconds against San Jose State, but that included the moment the second half clock hit zeros and so the Aggies walked off the court with a 75-74 victory and get on its first winning streak since December.

To start off the game, Utah State struggled to get rebounds as the Spartans grabbed 10 offensive boards in the first half alone, scoring 16 second-chance points off of those.

“Clearly there was a commitment on their player’s part and staff’s part of coming in and imposing their will from a rebounding perspective. And the first half was just not acceptable for us,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “We’ve got a very good rebounding team and when you get caught in scrambles like that, and we were caught in scrambles, you are susceptible to offensive rebounding.”

Additionally, the Aggies had to deal with hot-shooting from guys that aren’t normally snipers from 3-point range. Alvaro Cardenas and Tibet Gorener at one point were a combined 9-for-10 on 3-point shots, this from a pair of players who have shot a combined 33 percent from deep this year.

After tailing by as much as 11 points in the first half – and trailing 37-30 at halftime – because of those issues, Utah State made numerous comeback attempts, drawing close with San Jose State and even taking the lead multiple times in the second half. But those leads were never more than one point and the energy exerted to overcome deficits took its toll. Each time the Aggies made those runs, the Spartans responded.

With 17:16 left in the second half, USU drew to withing 40-39 only for SJSU to make a 7-2 run. The Aggies one-upped that first rally to take a 53-52 lead with 12:33 to play, only for the Spartans to go on a 7-0 run. Later Utah State took a 60-59 and then 62-61 lead. Again San Jose State responded, again with a 7-0 run.

“It definitely gets in your head a little bit,” Shulga said. “Like, ‘wow, how can we not get a stop now that we’re finally gone ahead and they just punch right back.’ But it’s all about that, taking punches and punching right back. So, that’s what we tried to do.”

But despite those three failed comeback attempts and facing a six-point deficit (70-64) with only 4:42 on the clock the Aggies had one more rally in them.

And the final time worked.

Utah State closed those final four minutes on an 11-4 run, forcing San Jose State to shoot 1-for-8 from the field in that span while shooting 4-of-6 themselves.

With about three minutes to go Utah State had turned that 70-64 deficit down to just 72-71 and needed a stop in the biggest way. The Aggies did get a stop – Tibet Gorener missed a 3-pointer – but didn’t get the rebound. Then USU forced another miss, and another. Three straight field goal attempts were missed by the Spartans but then rebounded by those same Spartans. A fourth shot went up and also missed but missed and Steven Ashworth skied up for a rebound among the trees to give Utah State a chance to steal the lead back.

“You could get discouraged where you give up two or three offensive rebounds on one play. I felt like some of those were kind of a bad beat, wasn’t like our guys weren’t blocking out, the ball just went in a different way,” Odom said. “As I was watching it live, I was kind of locked in and I was feeling like ‘we’re getting some misses here, we’re forcing some hard shots. Let’s make sure that we come up with this last one.’”

Ashworth, after claiming the key rebound, didn’t wait for an opportunity to take the lead. Less than 10 seconds after getting his hands on the ball he let loose from three…and nailed it, his fifth of the game. The junior guard missed his first four attempts in the game and scored just three first-half points. In the second, Ashworth had 16 points to finish with a game-high 19.

“It’s hard to stop Steven for a full game,” Odom said. “He just gets loose. He’s determined. He’s gonna find a way to get away from you because he doesn’t tire and it takes a lot of focus and determination to stay attached to him. And he can shoot it so far back. Especially when we get stops at the other end. He’s free to play and that’s when he’s at his best.”

San Jose State responded to Ashworth’s three that put USU up 74-72 by sinking a layup to tie the game. The two sides then traded scoreless possessions to set Utah State up for a final offensive possession. The Aggies had the ball with 22 seconds left. Coming out of back-to-back timeouts, they ran a play that is a favorite of USU assistant coach Bryce Crawford.

Shulga took the sideline out-of-bounds pass and dribbled 12 seconds off the clock before Ashworth – the man with the red-hot hand – darted around a Dan Akin screen and flashed his hands as though he would get the ball. Two Spartan defenders chased Ashworth, opening a driving lane for Shulga who dove to the rim. He didn’t get a shot off, but did draw a foul with 5.8 seconds left.

“It’s a play that we’ve run before at times,” Odom said. “Coming out of (the timeout) you really thought, everyone in the building thought Steven’s going to get the ball here. And so we put Steven underneath and screened down for him and he kind of run opposite and then Dan screens for Max and now you have Taylor (Funk) in the right corner. And if you’re guarding Taylor you’re like ‘I don’t know if I can go over and help on this.’ And Max is so fast. He’s hard to guard going downhill. He did a really good job of cutting it back as the big guy tried to play him and he cut it back to the middle and naturally it was open and he ends up getting fouled.”

It’s the second time in as many games that Shulga had been at the free-throw line in a clutch situation. On Tuesday he shot and sank a pair of free throws to put the Aggies up 75-71 over UNLV with under 20 seconds left. This time though, in a more tense situation, Shulga clanked the first attempt off the rim. The pressure turned up.

“Naturally you start thinking ‘Oh my god no way I just missed it,” Shulga said. “But you just try to dismiss those thoughts and just trust your follow-through of your shot and just stay in the moment.”

Not succumbing to the pressure, Shulga sank the second free throw that ultimately became the margin for victory. In the final 5.8 seconds, SJSU sprinted up the court and got a 3-point attempt off. Shulga, moments after making the crucial free throw, was lying on the ground when Alvaro Cardenas put up the shot for the Spartans because he ran headlong into a screen.

“I turned my head up when they were already shooting so I was just like ‘Please don’t go in,’” Shulga said.

Cardenas’ shot did not go in and thus the Aggies escaped with the victory. Alongside Ashworth’s 19 points (and also tied-for-team-lead six assists) Shulga had 15 for the Aggies plus three assists and five rebounds. Dan Akin scored 13 on a perfect 5-for-5 shooting ad also grabbed a team-best seven rebounds.

Next up for Utah State will be a two-game road trip to California, first to face San Diego State and then a rematch with Fresno State. The matchup with the Aztecs will take place on Wednesday with a 9 p.m. tip-off.

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