LOGAN – Before Saturday’s senior night matchup with Boise State – a game that would also have big NCAA Tournament implications – Utah State head coach Ryan Odom asked his team if they had any nervous feelings about the game ahead of them and if their hearts were beating faster because of it. The team nodded their heads. Odom gave a quick response.
“That’s good. Because that means you care.”
Odom acknowledged the nerves were a good thing but still worked to calm them. He told his team to take a deep breath. He told them, especially the five seniors on the team –Dan Akin, Sean Bairstow, Trevin Dorius, RJ Eytle-Rock and Taylor Funk – that they’ve “left the Aggies jersey in a better place than you found it.” He also told a story about a former player Odom coached that mentally set aside accolades to prioritize beating the team in front of him.
Then it was game time. And whatever nerves the team admitted were there before the game evaporated as the Aggies came out on fire. They lit up the 10th-ranked defense in the country to the tune of 57 percent shooting in the first half and 47 first-half points.
“We got off to a good start. We played really hard,” Odom said.
One of USU’s seniors, Funk, played a major role in that first-half explosion. He had 15 points in the opening 20 minutes, going 6-of-9 from the field and 3-of-5 from three.
As impressive as the offense was, the first-half defense by the Aggies was something the team valued even more and credited the team’s overall defensive effort as the key to victory.
“Our defense really kicked it up. That’s why we won tonight. You win games on the defensive end,” Funk said. “When defense is going and offense is going it’s kind of hard to stop.”
Boise State didn’t go quietly into the snowy night, though. The Broncos closed the first half on a 6-0 run, cutting USU’s 20-point lead down to 14 at the break. And that run foretold the push the visitors would make down the stretch.
Bit by bit the Broncos chipped away as the Aggies clung to a double-digit lead for most of the second half. But with 2:15 left in the game, the Broncos finally turned what had been a 20-point lead in the first half all the way down to six points. After Marcus Shaver Jr. hit a layup to cut that lead to that margin (the closest the game had been in 25 minutes of game time), USU head coach Ryan Odom called a timeout.
Out of the timeout, the Aggies got a boost from the player who’d been driving the offense all game – Taylor Funk. The fifth-year senior caught a handoff from fellow senior Akin, rose up from the right wing (with a hand in his face) and nailed one of the most clutch 3-pointers he’s hit all year.
“The play kind of broke down,” Funk said. “Me and Dan, honestly we made eye contact and he gave me a little head nod, like ‘come behind and I’ll pitch back to you.’ And I think it was Degenhart, I can’t really remember who was guarding me, went under and that’s the shot we work on a lot. Credit to Dan for reading that defense.”
Funk’s performance in this game contrasted his previous five games where he’d shot just 33.3 percent from the field overall and a paltry 8.7 percent from three. His offensive impact, once a staple of the USU offense, hadn’t been as great. But he showed once again what he means to the team and its hopes of postseason glory.
“He hasn’t been shooting it like he’s capable of shooting it, like we’ve all seen,” Odom said. “It’s just about relaxing. Shooters just expect the next one to go. Everybody in the gym and certainly on his team expects him to make shots. He knows that, there’s pressure with that. The key is taking the right ones and he certainly did that tonight.”
Alongside Funk’s performance, the Aggies got 19 points and eight assists from Steven Ashworth. The junior guard has averaged 21.3 points and 6.0 assists over the last four games, all of which have been Aggie wins.
Although Funk hit a huge shot to put the Aggies up by nine points, there was still 1:52 left on the clock and Boise State could always match that shot. As such, the stop Utah State got on the other end of the court, even after the Broncos rebounded their first miss, played just as huge a role in securing the win as Funk’s clutch three. It handed Utah State the ball with a nine-point lead and only 48 seconds left on the clock. The game became an exercise in free throws which USU executed well. In the two minutes after having their lead cut to six, the Aggies outscored the Broncos 9-2.
“Score-stop at the end of the game. That’s what it’s all about,” Odom said.
The victory provides a huge boost to Utah State’s at-large NCAA Tournament hopes as it could give the Aggies their first Quad 1 victory (provided the Broncos, ranked 27th in the NET, stay in the top 30 of that ranking). When asked what this game should say to the NCAA Tournament selection committee, Funk said, “Make us go dancing man.”
In the end, though, both Funk and Coach Odom know the team doesn’t have the luxury of pleading their case to the selection committee. The Aggies responsibility lies in putting its best foot forward in the Mountain West Tournament.
“We don’t worry about that until next Sunday,” Odom said. “We know the numbers. We know where we’re at at this point. Most teams do. We know what people are saying about us. But again we’ve blocked that out for an entire year.”
Utah State will now head to Las Vegas for the Mountain West Conference Tournament. And since Nevada lost its game on Saturday to UNLV, the Aggies moved up in the standings into a tie for second with Boise State. Tiebreakers mean the Broncos will get the two seed in the tournament and USU will get the third seed. The Aggies opponent is unknown at the moment as they’ll play whoever wins between Wyoming and New Mexico in a Wednesday game.