Utah State rallies with defense to down Boise State, advance to MW title game – Cache Valley Daily

LAS VEGAS – For 32 minutes of Friday’s Mountain West conference tournament semifinal game, Utah State trailed Boise State. Shots weren’t falling as the Aggies started 4-of-12 from the field (1-of-12 from three) and made just 37.5 percent of shots in the first half. The Broncos built a lead as high as nine points as they made 53.8 percent of their first-half shots. Something had to change.

And change it did but the first step for the Aggies wasn’t suddenly hitting shots. It began with Utah State stepping things up on defense. The result was a 72-62 win and an appearance in the Mountain West conference tournament championship game.

Just 24 hours after lighting up New Mexico from three, with a 12-for-24  clip in the Thursday night win, Utah State suddenly couldn’t hit a 3-pointer to save their lives. Steven Ashworth and Taylor Funk, who just themselves  went 10-for-17 in that previous win, began Friday’s game 0-of-6 from distance and were 4-of-14 on the night.

“We weren’t as connected as we needed to be in the that first half,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “Boise State had a lot to do with that.”

Boise State were able to capitalize on that poor shooting to build a solid lead – 36-28 by halftime. Odom said the Broncos were “playing tough and physical” in that first half.

“They clearly were the aggressor throughout the half, forcing us to make some turnovers,” Odom said. “We had 10 turnovers in the first half. Rushed shooting. Just a lot of different plays that they were making that were putting us in uncomfortable positions.”

The saving grace of the first half was Sean Bairstow, who scored nine of his 12 points in the first half, manufacturing several buckets to keep Boise State’s lead within a manageable striking distance.

“Sean was huge,” Odom said. “To see him flying up and down the court in the last two days was huge, and certainly he means so much to our team.”

At the halftime break, facing that eight-point deficit and a night where shots just weren’t falling, Odom talked to his team about “stepping up.”

“We just encouraged our guys at halftime to be us in a lot of ways,” Odom said. “Give one another space. Try to work to get open harder. Be tough with the ball when you first catch it. All the things that these guys know but were getting away from in the first half.”

One particular player Odom said he challenged was Dan Akin

“You saw how he played last night. And tonight he had an uncharacteristic half. I challenged him at halftime. He probably wasn’t happy with me challenging him at halftime. But I knew that he would respond appropriately.”

To the Aggies’ credit, they responded to those messages well and as a result were able to begin a turnaround. Immediately to start the second half they went on a  12-5 run, drawing within one point, 41-40. But they couldn’t take the lead. For the next five minutes the two sides went back and forth – 44-40, 44-43, 47-43, 47-45 – as the Aggies tried to not only draw close, but overcome the deficit and take the lead for the first time in the game.

Boise State took its last multi-possession lead with 9:57 left in the game, going up 49-45 on a Tyson Degenhart layup.

And that’s when the final turnaround began for the Aggies.

Over the next seven minutes and 52 seconds after Degenhart’s layup, Boise State attempted 10 field goals. All were misses. The Broncos would managed just four points over that span while the Aggies poured in 19. Utah State went from down four points to up 11.

“It all started with our defense,” Odom said, who said moments before that statement: “We’re at our best when we’re able to do that. Score-stop is what we call it, and also it can become stop-score. I thought our guys did a really nice job. They were hurting us inside in that first half, and so we challenged our big guys to fight more and fight around more.”

The defense played on two of Boise State’s guards, Marcus Shaver Jr. and Max Rice, was particularly effective. Shaver shot just 4-of-13 from the field and Rice went 0-for-6 with just one point scored the entire night.

“Our guards didn’t shoot it the way they have been,” Boise State head coach Leon Rice said. “The ball didn’t drop for them tonight. Credit their defense too. They did a great job tonight.”

The offensive side of that turnaround saw several Aggies get involved, but few as much as Shulga. The junior got an and-one to put USU within one point one last time. Ashworth got a point after a technical foul for flopping was called on Boise State’s Marcus Shaver.

With the game tied 49-49, RJ Eytle-Rock drove the lane and Degenhart was called for a controversial block foul. Eytle-Rock hit the two free throws as part of his 11-point second half.

Perhaps the biggest moment in a run filled with big moments came in back-to-back possessions. Shulga, who started the game 1-for-5 on 3-pointers, hit two straight triples to launch Utah State from a three point lead to a nine point lead. And despite his cold start, he stayed within the Aggies’ mantra about the open man.

“The open man is the go-to man in our team,” Shulga said. “So those times it was me and I was able to knock them down.”

A minute-and-a-half later, Boise State finally broke its streak of missed field goals, but with just 2:05 left and the Aggies up eight points, all it took was a few more free throws. It didn’t matter much that the Broncos were able to score on most of their possessions the rest of the way.

Utah State got contributions from everyone on the team. Each player had their down moments, but also bright ones. Shulga led the way for all scorers with 19 points, also leading all players with five assists. Ashworth ended with 14 points, Bairstow had 12 points, six rebounds and three assists. Funk only had seven points but reeled in a team-best 10 rebounds. Akin, challenged by his coach to play better in the second, played tough defense in the second half, hit five key free throws in the second half, and ended the game with seven points and eight rebounds, two assists and a block. Eytle-Rock, as mentioned, had 11 of his 13 overall points in the second half and played a role in Shaver and Rice having rough nights alongside Shulga and Ashworth.

The victory sends Utah State to the Mountain West championship game for the fourth time in the last five years. Each of those matchups, including this upcoming one, has come against San Diego State. The Aggies have gone 2-1 in the previous matchups including an upset of the then-fifth ranked Aztecs.

The championship game will tip off at 4 p.m. Mountain Time.

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