LAS VEGAS – Nothing has come easy to any team in the Mountain West conference tournament so far. Five games have finished regulation with the margin within a single possession – four went to overtime. New Mexico was just as determined to make things painfully difficult for Utah State to advance to the semifinals and a rematch with Boise State.
“They’re a big, aggressive team,” USU forward Taylor Funk said. “They make us work on every single possession. We really talk about every possession matters, offense and defense. And I think our guys really took that to heart and really took advantage of our opportunity today.”
The Aggies certainly did take advantage of its opportunities, earning a 15-point win in a tournament where double-digit wins have been rarer than diamonds. The first key to achieving that margin was Funk himself getting off to what head coach Ryan Odom called a “blazing-hot start.” Funk made five of his first six shots (including four 3-pointers) and accounting for all of USU’s first 16 points. It helped the Aggies build a 16-4 lead right out of the gate.
Funk, like many of his teammates who have had great games this season, fell back on a team mantra of “the open man is the best man.”
“Credit to all of the other guys on the floor,” Funk said. “They set screens and passed me the ball at the right time. And then it’s just your responsibility to knock the shot down.”
Funk wasn’t the only one to monopolize the scoring for stretches. When he slowed down for a moment in the first half, Steven Ashworth took his turn playing “I’m the entire offense.” With 9:38 to go in the half, New Mexico had cut the lead back to single digits when “Splashworth” hit a 3-pointer for his first bucket of the game. It began a stretch of eight straight points by Ashworth for the Aggies which fought to keep the lead in the double-digit range and keep New Mexico at arm’s length.
The Aggies were able to take a double-digit lead into halftime, 47-33. But that double-figure lead was never going to hold in a conference tournament environment, nor against a team as talented as New Mexico. A run was coming, and a run eventually arrived: twice.
New Mexico’s first counter-offensive came early in the second half. Within three minutes of the start of the half, the Lobos cut USU’s 14-point lead down to just six. The Aggies’ response to that was a 12-2 run to go up by 16. That lead eventually made it to 18 points, the largest lead of the game for USU, before New Mexico made its final major offensive.
Starting with 8:46 left in the game, New Mexico went on a 10-0 run. The run coincided with Utah State’s most vulnerable point in the game. Ashworth had to spend time on the bench after picking up his third and later fourth fouls a little too early. Sean Bairstow was also in foul trouble. And with all the fouling going on it gave New Mexico some easy extra points.
“It’s not the ref’s fault,” Odom said. “It’s our fault for not playing the right way. It’s a physical game. When guys are driving at you like they were, extremely hard, you run the risk of having some fouls.”
“Coach kind of got on us because we had the lead and we didn’t want that clock to stop but we just kept fouling,” Funk said. “We definitely need to learn from that. Guard without fouling and just keep that clock ticking.”
That New Mexico would make a run was not something that surprised the Aggies. The answer was just as obvious.
“Obviously, we knew they were eventually going to make a run,” Dan Akin said. “Just tried to stay focused and just get good shots.”
Utah State did get shots. Akin started it off with a dunk after the New Mexico defense broke down and left him wide open under the basket. Max Shulga then hit four free throws in a span of about 30 seconds. It actually capped off a great stretch for Shulga, a five-minute span where he scored 10 of his 12 points on the night. His contributions were something Odom didn’t want going unnoticed.
“Max’s ability to make several of those baskets for us was huge,” Odom said. “That, to be honest with you, was probably the key for us to be able to maintain a margin where it wasn’t too close. His threes were huge.”
Thanks to those points from Shulga, a big bucket from Bairstow to put the Aggies up by 13 with 2:49 to play and free throws down the stretch from Ashworth, Utah State were able to end with a comfortable win. When asked what helped his team keep New Mexico from making the game interesting, Odom said “obviously scoring, right?”
“We ended up with 91. You have to score,” Odom said.
Funk, it cannot be stated enough, had the biggest impact on the offense Odom said was so key. The graduate forward started the offensive run and ended the night with a season-high 32 points. It’s the most points scored by an Aggie in a conference tournament game in the Mountain West era (breaking Sam Merrill’s previous mark of 29) and most since at least the 2010-11 season. There was simply nothing the Lobos could do to stop Funk, something UNM head coach Richard Pitino freely admitted.
“None of it worked, but man he is a great shooter,” Pitino said. “Josiah was the best length we could put on him. I don’t know what other great options we really have. But he was backing up and shooting over us. We needed to make him more uncomfortable, but that certainly was not the case at the beginning.”
Steven Ashworth also poured in points, scoring 22 to increasing his streak of games with at least 19 points to five. He also had five assists and four rebounds. Akin flirted with a double-double, scoring 17 points with eight rebounds. Shulga’s 12 rounded out USU players in double figures.