San Diego State guard Lamont Butler, right, tries to steal the ball from Utah State guard Max Shulga during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game for the men’s Mountain West Tournament championship Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)
LAS VEGAS – The Aggies run couldn’t last forever. A seven-game winning streak, one that saw Utah State completely reverse its season fortunes and likely pushed the team into an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, ended with a 62-57 defeat Saturday afternoon at the hands of San Diego State.
The Aztecs proved they were the better team this season, defeating the Aggies at home, on the road, and on the neutral site of the Thomas & Mack Center. The margin between USU and SDSU isn’t wide, but it’s just big enough to make one side the victor in all three contests.
“They’ve got a dynamite team,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said of the Aztecs. “They’re very tough. They’re very deep. They’re very physical. They just have a well-rounded bunch and they keep coming at you.”
Utah State put up its best effort of the three games in an attempt to avoid a three-game sweep. After two eerily similar losses in the regular season, where San Diego State went on huge runs in both games to force the Aggies to play from behind, Utah State played from ahead for much of the first half. With 6:57 left in the first half, USU had built an 11-point lead, 26-15.
“We were recognizing the different ways to get us open off the pick and roll,” junior guard Steven Ashworth said. “We saw Max (Shulga) being really creative as well as Sean (Bairstow) being aggressive off of those ball screens and making the right reads. And on top of that during that stretch we were also getting stops. And those stops led to quick-pace offense.”
Senior center Trevin Dorius played a larger-then-normal role in the offense. The 7-footer scored six points in the first half as part of his eventual 12 point, six rebound game for the Aggies. His six points early led the team at that point, but all eight USU players that stepped on the floor scored in the first half. Zee Hamoda was the last of those and it was his 3-pointer with 6:57 on the clock that put the Aggies up by 11.
But while USU proved to be the better team for the first 13 minutes, the Aztecs were better for the final 27. The consequences of playing a third game in three nights – two of those ending near midnight – began to show for Utah State. Over those final seven minutes of the first half, San Diego State went on a 13-3 run, cutting Utah State’s lead to just one point. The Aggies didn’t make a single field goal in the entire span. The Aztecs made four field goals and some free throws along with it.
Odom attributed the change in fortunes to a change in the pace the game was played at.
“The pace of the game was played at their pace more so than what we would have done,” Odom said. “And it started at the end of that first half, heading into halftime.”
The scoring for San Diego State came from a less-expected source, Jaedon LeDee the team’s fifth-leading scorer on the season. LeDee had eight first-half points, helped along by the three offensive rebounds he grabbed.
Part of the Aggies struggles on offense came from playing a lot of that stretch without offensive leader, Ashworth. He went out with 4:34 left in the half – when USU was still up 10 points – after picking up a second foul and didn’t return until after halftime.
Even though Ashworth returned after the halftime break, the tired legs and cold shooting remained. The Aggies missed threes (2-of-15 in the second half) and weren’t getting to the free throw line. The Aztecs, even though they weren’t shooting any better than USU, did get to the free throw line (13-of-15 in the second half) and used that to fuel a push toward their largest lead of the half – eight points – with 9:34 left in the game.
At this most dire point, however, the Aggies responded with their biggest push. After going down by those eight points, 44-36, Utah State went on a 6-0 run to push the game back to one possession.
During this push, Utah State fell victim to a cruel break. Late in the shot clock on an offensive possession, Shulga briefly lost his handle on the ball on a drive but dove to recover it with just under two seconds left on the shot clock. A desperate pass to Funk gave the forward a chance to hit a 3-pointer and he did. Initially the shot counted, giving the Aggies a 47-46 lead. But upon review it was determined Funk didn’t get the ball off in time and SDSU re-took the lead.
“It was a difficult moment for sure. We thought it was good,” Ashworth said. “I thought that because they called it good they weren’t able to review it unless they called it a shot clock (violation) first. I was a little confused and didn’t quite get the answer. It was really close, obviously I haven’t seen the replay. But they believed, and maybe it was a shot clock violation. Which is tough because every possession matters in a game like this.”
That wouldn’t be the final chance for the Aggies, despite SDSU making a big push – a 7-2 run over the next three minutes after that overturned 3-pointer to go up 53-46. The Aggies wouldn’t let it go away, going on a 4-0 run to get back within one possession. After USU got the ball back off a turnover, Funk got open for a corner three, but the shot clanked off the rim.
Utah State’s last hurrah came after Ashworth hit a 3-pointer to cut the score to 55-53. But the Aztecs were able to make free throws and force just enough stops and keep their lead safe in the final seconds of the game.
The loss now leaves some room for doubt as to whether Utah State will receive an invite to March Madness. Bracketologists appear to have reached a consensus as, according to the database on Bracket Matrix as of Saturday morning, the Aggies are unanimous picks to make the tournament. But that consensus was only just recently achieved after USU beat Boise State. Whether the official selection committee thinks the same as bracketologists is something that will have to wait until Sunday evening.
After the game, the Mountain West released its All-Tournament Team which featured two Utah State players – Funk and Ashworth. The others on the team were San Diego State’s Matt Bradley (also named tournament MVP) and Jaedon LeDee with Boise State forward Tyson Degenhart rounded out the five honorees.