LOGAN – When Jaycee Carroll came out onto the court at halftime to have his No. 20 jersey honored, the scoreboard showed his beloved Aggies down by 15 points, 47-32. A mere 19 minutes of game time later, Carroll and the rest of the Aggie greats in attendance – including Sam Merrill, Tai Wesley, Gary Wilkinson, Tyler Newbold, and Stew Morrill – were graced with the familiar “winning team, losing team” chant as USU closed out a 75-66 win over the Wolf Pack.
“Disaster” may not quite fully describe the first four minutes of the game. Nevada opened up the game with a 22-4 run, all of it powered by the offense of one player: Will Baker. The junior center scored the first 22 points for the Wolf Pack, going 7-for-7 from the field including 6-for-6 from three.
“I’ve never seen that before, personally. Respect to him for making them,” graduate guard RJ Eytle-Rock said. “We just didn’t quite get there close enough in time. He made some tough ones.”
“I’ve coached a long time as an assistant and a head coach. I’ve never seen anything like that,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said.
The rest of the Nevada players fed off that red-hot start from Baker as the team as a whole made 13 of its first 14 shots. Utah State meanwhile started off cold, missing nine of its first 11 attempts. It all added up to a 30-9 lead with 10:39 to play in the first half. It was the largest Nevada’s lead got, and marked the point where Utah State began its comeback over the next 30 minutes of the game.
The talks in the timeout huddles were sober affairs that first half, with messages ranging from “don’t look at the scoreboard” to one that Odom’s father – in attendance at the Spectrum – always harped on: “Early leads never hold.”
Over the final 11 minutes of the first half, Utah State did draw the 21-point lead down to “only” 15, but that was just the first leg of the comeback. And the message at halftime emphasized not wasting any time in cutting that lead down even further.
“We said we just need to punch first,” Eytle-Rock said. “Just answer right away and not wait on the back foot. We have to get it down. We didn’t have time to ease back into it in the second half.”
Utah State followed that message to the letter, exploding out of the halftime break on a 10-0 run. A big play to start off the second half was a step-back 3-point shot by Max Shulga as the shot clock wound down on USU’s first possession of the half. Less than five minutes into the second half, Nevada’s lead was down to one possession. At the 10:20 mark, the Aggies tied the game up for the first time since 0-0. At 8:57, Utah State took its first lead of the night. And though Nevada would tie the game once in the closing minutes, the Aggies never trailed after taking that lead.
As much as the Aggies 43 second-half points were a major factor, the real turnaround for the team was on the defensive end. Their offensive shooting numbers were consistent to both half (45.2 percent in the first, 50.0 percent in the second) but the defense was night and day. Nevada shot a blistering 62.1 percent in the first half and a colder-than-the-dark-side-of-the-moon 19.2 percent in the second half. Baker, who started 7-of-7, missed his final six shots of the game and scored just three points after his 22-point barrage.
In the final two minutes that defense came in huge. Nevada tied the game at 64 apiece with 2:26 left in the game. But the Wolf Pack wouldn’t make another field goal the rest of the way, only scoring on a pair of free throws. By the time said free throws provided Nevada with its final points, Utah State had already surged ahead, going up seven (but back down to five). Dan Akin hit a huge driving layup off an assist from Shulga (who had put USU ahead by one moments ago on a free throw) and Steven Ashworth converted on trips to the free throw line on back-to-back possessions.
Ashworth said that playing under the pressure of rallying and being composed all that time helped in those final minutes where Utah State sealed the win.
“A lot of it was just our composure over a long stretch of time. We knew if we could flip the script we would put the pressure on them. We felt it early and I’d much rather feel the pressure early than feel the pressure late,” Ashworth said. “They didn’t have to play with the pressure we had to play with through the whole game. So then when it came down to those crunch minutes we were already used to feeling that throughout the whole game which I think gave us the upper hand.”
Unlike Nevada’s initial run, no one player led the Aggies led the comeback. All contributed in their own way. Ashworth scored 20 points on the night with six assists. He hit eight free throws in the final two minutes and had a go-ahead three. Akin had 12 points, including the big layup to put USU up three late. Shulga had 13 points and 10 rebounds, hitting numerous shots including that step-back three to kick off USU’s second-half rally. But another massive contribution was the night from Eytle-Rock. His role has been a diminished one from starting 30 games last year to playing just 10.9 minutes per game this year. But he played a very impactful 17 minutes Saturday night, scoring 10 points which put him over the 1,000 mark for his career.
“My teammates are happy for me,” Eytle-Rock said. “They know what I can contribute to the team. We’re celebrating in there, everyone’s jumping on me, happy for me. Can’t thank them enough. I’m proud of myself for sticking through it, sticking to it. I knew a game like this would come. But at the end of the day it’s about wins and keep building down the stretch. I’m more happy about the win.”
This win is huge for Utah State, a team desperate for a win against a top-level Mountain West team and only recently off its only losing streak of the season. It’s a win that proves the Aggies can finally answer fully when the top teams throw heavyweight punches only the best teams are capable of withstanding. Or, as Ashworth said the win “says we can freaking do it.”
For the moment, the win won’t advance USU up in the standings. The Aggies will remain in fourth place in the conference, but are now just half a game behind the Wolf Pack for third and one game behind Boise State (which USU will play on March 4) for second place.
Next up for Utah State will be a trip to Laramie for a matchup with the beleaguered Wyoming Cowboys. That game will tip off at 7 p.m.