LAS VEGAS — Coming off nine days rest, Utah State played arguably its best road game of the season, downing UNLV 91-66 Wednesday night.
With all that extra time, the Aggies were able to reset, re-find themselves, and prepare for the final week of the regular season.
“We had a really productive off week,” USU guard Steven Ashworth said. “We had some days off to where we could get some rest but also at the same time some days where we could really nail home some of the things we want to work on for ourselves. I think you get into the grind of the season and everything’s about preparing for the next team, the next team, the next team and you kind of lose some of your core principles. So, this week was huge in order to allow us to get to the position that we want to.”
The fresh legs and fresh outlook led to the Aggies pulling together multiple large runs in both the first and second half that powered the 25-point victory. The second of those runs was of particular note as it responded to a UNLV run that could have turned the tables in favor of the home team.
The first of those runs occurred not too long into the first half. UNLV took a brief 15-12 run and then Utah State went on a 19-2 run to open up a 31-17 lead in the first half. The Aggies would carry most of that lead into halftime with a 44-32 score. Ashworth and Max Shulga played a big part in building that lead as each had 14 points in the first half alone.
Coming out of the locker room it was UNLV who looked more ready to play as the Rebels outscored USU 13-5 in the first four minutes of the second half. It took the Aggies lead all the way down to four points, their lowest advantage in 14 minutes. Head coach Ryan Odom called a timeout immediately after Jackie Johnson III hit his second 3-pointer in two minutes which brought the game to that four-point split.
“We were making some mistakes on both sides of the ball,” Odom said. “Not as organized as we need to be offensively. Fouling on the other end. Giving up some offensive rebounds that we didn’t really give up in the first half. And had some turnovers. We’ve got to be better than that going forward.”
The time out seemed to be just what Utah State needed as the Aggies exploded out of that short break. Ashworth again led the charge, scoring all of USU’s point in an 8-0 run, comprising a 2-pointer and two 3-pointers. The first shot out of that time out — a tough long 2-pointer (Ashworth’s toe was on the 3-point line) off a play called during the sideline huddle.
“We ran the play correctly and they defended it really well so I had to make a little move. Sadly it was a two, but it went in,” Ashworth said. “I think that just got me going in the second half. It made me confident from behind the arc, even though it was a two, it felt deep. Knew the next few possessions if the opportunity was there I should shoot it. And so I did that and my teammates gave me all the confidence I needed for that little spurt.”
“Steven’s shot was a big shot out of the timeout where (UNLV) were enthused and really defending us,” Odom said. “They guarded the play effectively and Steven just made a play. And his little flurry there gave us a little bit of a sigh of relief and we were able to play the game from there.”
That 8-0 run evolved into a 14-1 run and even into a 21-5 run. Utah State relentlessly built its lead bigger and bigger, nearly knocking down the door of a 30-point lead in the final minutes of the game (the lead maxed out at 29, 91-62, with 50 seconds left in the game).
Integral in creating so much space between them and the Rebels was the Aggies holding UNLV without a field goal for more than 10 minutes of game time. That Johnson 3-pointer that brought the game to within four points? That occurred at the 15:56 mark of the second half. UNLV’s next field goal came with 5:30 left in the game. The Rebels missed 12 straight shots in the interim. That level of defense was also something the Aggies focused on in their long break.
“This off week we’ve really been able to communicate as a team and come together and set some goals on what we want our defense to be,” Ashworth said.
UNLV did find some offense in its field goal-less span, getting seven points off free throws. The Aggies committed numerous fouls, putting the Rebels in the bonus with 11 minutes to go in the game. Several USU players — Dan Akin, Trevin Dorius and Taylor Funk — got in foul trouble. Funk and Dorius even fouled out of the game. But despite that the Aggies were able to continue to push ahead. A lot of that was thanks to Ashworth, who scored 27 on the night (plus seven assists and three steals), continuing a great run of scoring. The junior guard has now scored at least 19 points in three straight games. He’s become more aggressive in finding shots that aren’t 3-pointers (although he did make five against UNLV).
“I’m trying to make sure I’m assertive in the right ways,” Ashworth said. “Sometimes in previous years I would allow teams to take me out of games by not being aggressive on the offensive end, whether that’s attacking the paint, finding quality twos as well as the three-ball. And I think I’ve found a healthy balance of that which has given me confidence to be more aggressive on offense.”
In addition to Ashworth’s great night, Shulga had 19 points on 6-of-7 shooting to go with five rebounds and four assists. He did have five turnovers, though, which tempered Odom’s praise of the Ukrainian guard’s night. But Odom did make sure to praise Shulga for his defense on Elijah Harkless. UNLV’s leading scorer had 15 points in the first half, but finished the game with just 20. And the five points Harkless did have in the second half came largely after the game was effectively decided.
Other notable performances came from Dan Akin (13 points), Sean Bairstow (seven points, 10 rebounds) and Zee Hamoda (nine points).
The win certainly doesn’t come in a vacuum as the Aggies are fighting for NCAA Tournament at-large consideration should next week’s conference tournament not go their way. And the 25-point victory with its two-way dominance is a sure-fire way to show that Utah State is playing its best basketball at the moment. The team is now on a 3-game winning streak heading into what may become the biggest game of the regular season — a home finale against Boise State, a team coming off an upset of San Diego State. That matchup will take place on Saturday, tipping off at 7 p.m.