Utah State men’s basketball coach Ryan Odom. Photo by Lorene Hale.
FORT COLLINS – It’s pretty simple math, really. Three points is more than two points. Utah State held true to this concept in attempting a season-high 39 threes against Colorado State to fuel its 88-79 win on the road.
The Aggies didn’t set a season high in made threes (that would require re-setting the program record they broke earlier this year with 21 threes against Westminster) but the 18 triples made was perfectly suitable for the team’s purposes. Colorado State meanwhile did most of its damage inside the arc, going 29-of-41 (70.7 percent) on 2-pointers. But that insane level of efficiency inside the arc just wasn’t enough to overcome USU’s 3-point shooting.
Steven Ashworth led the way for USU in downtown shooting, blowing away his previous career high in attempts (13) by going 8-for-17 on threes alone. Those eight makes tied his career high and helped the junior guard score 26 points, the fifth-highest total of his career.
The Aggies could hardly have started hotter on offense, making four of its first five field goal attempts – all of those makes being 3-pointers – plus a free throw to score 13 points in 163 seconds. Better yet, the Rams missed three of their first four attempts and had several turnovers mixed in. Combining the two factors meant USU had a 13-2 lead with 17:17 still on the first-half clock.
But that hot start didn’t last as Colorado State flipped the script and went on a 16-0 run to take an 18-13 lead. That turned the game into a bit more of a dog fight than the first few minutes indicated it would be.
“It was a game of runs for sure,” USU forward Taylor Funk said. “Coach talked about that at halftime. We’ve just got to be up for the bad and I think our guys were.”
The first half featured eight lead changes with Utah State holding on to a slight 33-32 advantage at the halftime break. The opening minutes of the second half wound up being the place where the Aggies would stake their claim on the game. Ashworth hit two 3-pointers within the first few minutes and Funk added a quick 5-0 run by himself that propelled USU to an eight-point lead.
Colorado State made every effort to remain in the game, fighting back to within four points numerous times. But each time the Rams made their small (at most four point) runs, the Aggies would respond with a 3-pointer. Over a span of 12 minutes in the second half (17:50 to 5:18), Colorado State made 13-of-15 field goal attempts and scored 32 points. Utah State also made 13 field goals in that same stretch of time but scored 38 points. The key difference being the Aggies made eight 3-pointers to the Rams’ zero. In fact, from the 9:50 mark of the half until 3:19 left in the game, all 21 of the points USU scored came on 3-pointers.
The almost absurd volume of 3-point shooting came about partly by Colorado State’s defense, a zone scheme, which meant that the Aggies had too many open threes to pass up.
“What are we? We’re one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country,” Funk said. “We’ve got one of the best 3-point shooters in the country on our team here. I think every shot we took was great. Sometimes they go in sometimes they don’t. Live or die this team likes to live by them.”
“It’s the first time we’ve played against zone for 40 minutes in a game this season,” Odom said. “The last time we played against the zone for that extended period of time was against Washington in a scrimmage. We were a little bit concerned going in just because we hadn’t had a lot of reps against it, one day of prep. But I thought our guys did a really good job of handling it well. And certainly it always helps when you make shots like we did.”
It was a good thing the Aggies had as hot a hand as they did given how well Colorado State shot the ball in the game. As already mentioned, the 70 percent on 2-pointers kept the Rams in the game. Most of that scoring came way of a familiar face, Isaiah Stevens, and his backcourt partner John Tonje. The two combined to score 45 points. Stevens led the way with 25, 21 of that coming in the second half.
“He’s really good in that middle third of the court,” Odom said. “It’s really tough to deal with. And our guys were trying. You kind of have to settle for some mid-range shots and hope that they’re contested because he’s got a great pace about him. He understands how to read plays and he knows what you’re doing and he knows how to attack what you’re doing.”
Aside from the game-high 26 points from Ashworth the Aggies got 21 points from Funk. Sean Bairstow had one of his better games in terms of passing, racking up a career-high nine assists to go with his 11 points and five rebounds.
“Sean was great. He and Max in particular, and Steven at times, were penetrating that zone and getting in there and making some plays. Decisions for Trevin (Dorius), decisions for Dan (Akin), kick-outs for Taylor and Steven. And then the ball was moving at that point. And there were probably some hockey assists in there that (Bairstow) should get credit for too.”
This victory gives Utah State 19 wins on the season surpassing last year’s total of 18 with seven games left on the regular season schedule (plus one guaranteed game at the conference tournament). It’s something that shows progress but doesn’t mean anything to the team quite yet.
“It just shows the hard work and the dedication and the commitment this team has. A lot of credit to the coaches that prepare us every night, for every game. Credit to the guys too. It’s a long season. It’s not easy to get going every single night and we just find a way to do it.”
Odom kept things grounded with Utah State’s early breaking of last year’s win total, saying the team is “not pleased with ourselves” because of reaching 19 wins now and noting that there are a lot of games left. One of the biggest games left is USU’s next game, a matchup with San Diego State on Wednesday in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in Logan. A win would put the Aggies in a tie for first place. That game will tip off at 8 p.m.