Utah State guard Sean Bairstow (2) ducks around Missouri forward Noah Carter (35) during the first half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, March 16, 2023. Thursday, March 16, 2023. (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas)
SACRAMENTO – It’ll be 22 years and counting for Utah State in the NCAA Tournament, 22 years and more without a victory in March Madness as the 10th-seed Aggies lost to seven-seed Missouri 76-65.
Despite missing its first 13 shots from 3-point land and trailing Missouri for nearly all of the first half, Utah State were able to stay with the Tigers and even take a lead in the second half. The Aggies shot 76 percent on its 2-pointers in the first half (making up for the 0-11 mark from three) and only trailed 35-31 at halftime despite their poor outside shooting.
“We went into halftime knowing that we were down four and hadn’t made a three yet,” junior guard Steven Ashworth said. “We had a lot of confidence in that.”
In the second half both teams threw their biggest punches. Utah State came out of the break on a 5-0 run – which included the team’s first 3-pointer of the game, made by Ashworth – which gave the Aggies a 36-35 lead, their first advantage since 4-2. Missouri then re-took the lead with back-to-back baskets and eventually built a lead back to four points.
That’s when Utah State threw its biggest punch of the game.
Down 45-41, the Aggies worked over the Missouri defense for four straight layups/dunks. Dan Akin threw it down twice in a two-minute span while Ashworth and Shulga each laid the ball into the cup. That gave Utah State what wound up being its largest lead of the game, 49-47, matched moments later by a 51-49 advantage.
With USU having thrown its punch, Missouri responded by putting the ball in the hands of its best player, Kobe Brown. And Brown made that decision the smartest one of the night. Over a span of nearly four minutes Brown scored 13 straight points for the Tigers. Two of those came during USU’s 8-2 run, but the remainder powered what eventually became an 18-5 run for Missouri. Brown had two straight tough 3-pointers over Aggie forward Dan Akin.
“We trust Dan. Dan is our best defender. He made them make some tough shots,” Funk said. “But (Brown’s) a really good player. I mean, we knew he can make those shots. We just wanted to make them as hard as possible. He really got that offense going. I mean, he opened that lead a little bit.”
“All of a sudden we were chasing the game,” Odom said. “Up two, then all of a sudden we’re chasing. That’s not easy to do. When you finally fight all the way back, you take the lead, then all of a sudden that kind of takes the life out of you.”
The Aggies simply didn’t have a response to Brown, or D’Moi Hodge who led Missouri with 23 points and scored eight of the Tigers’ points in that 18-5 run. While USU’s opponent got hot from three (7-of-14 in the second half), they continued to be cold. The Aggies went 4-of-24 from three, tied for its worst 3-point day for the team alongside the Mountain West Tournament championship game (an identical 4-of-24 in that game).
“There has to be some credit given to Missouri, their style of defense, what they like to do to teams,” Ashworth said. “At times, even if you’re getting open looks in those situations, you can be a little rushed into those shots. I think the first half we had a little bit of that. At the same time it was we just weren’t hitting the shots we normally make. I know even some of them were just bad beats.”
Utah State countered by scoring a lot of points in the paint, with a 46-26 advantage throughout the whole game. Funk, though 2-of-10 from deep, did a lot of damage inside the arc where he scored 10 of his team-leading 16 points. Funk also grabbed a team-best seven rebounds as the Aggies also out-rebounded Missouri 33-27. But giving up interior superiority was something Missouri was willing to do in favor of guarding the Aggies on the 3-point line.
“Twenty six of their 31 points in the first half were points in the paint. You got to understand at that point that’s not how they want to score, that’s not how they want the entire game to go,” Missouri head coach Dennis Gates said. “Our guys, commend them. It’s hard to give up layups or different things, but they stayed disciplined and they did not over-rotate, which is one of the game plans we saw being used throughout their conference.”
In the final minutes, down double digits, all Utah State could do was put up a few extra desperation threes. A couple went in, but too little too late.
Aside from Funk’s 16 points, Akin and Ashworth each had 12 points. Ashworth added six rebounds and four assists to his point total. Sean Bairstow rounded out Aggies in double figures with 10 points, he also had six rebounds and three assists.
Thus ends Utah State’s season. A 26-9 record, second-place finishes in the Mountain West regular season standings and conference tournament, all from a team picked to finish eighth in the preseason poll.