Falslev’s 23, Aggie defense leads USU to win over Montana State Billings in exhibition – Cache Valley Daily

LOGAN — Danny Sprinkle’s unofficial debut as head coach of the Utah State men’s basketball team, featuring an all-new Aggie lineup, went about as well as one can hope for a team with 13 newcomers and zero returning production from last year’s rotation.

A defensive-minded USU squad held Division II Montana State Billings to 37.7 percent shooting (28.6 in the first half) while Mason Falslev and his 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists powered the Aggie offense in a 73-64 win in the Friday evening exhibition game.

“For the first time playing in front of the crowd, I was proud of them,” Sprinkle said.

Utah State’s effort and intensity on defense, which included forcing 19 turnovers, were a big positive from that game and a big part of what Sprinkle is expecting to bring to this program. The guard line were especially intense, accounting for five of the Aggies’ 12 steals and numerous other deflections leading to turnovers. Darius Brown, Javon Jackson and Falslev were all key in slowing the Yellow Jackets.

“That’s been our focus all year,” Falslev said. “Coach Sprinkle is very defensive minded, which is a good thing because defense leads to offense. Our gameplan is always go out and play as hard as we can on defense and then we know that it’s going to trigger our offense.”

The defensive effort wasn’t perfect, though. Utah State committed 19 fouls. None of the Aggies were in foul trouble, with no player exceeding three fouls, but it did send MSUB into the bonus early in both halves.

A couple of factors for the extra fouls were brought up postgame by Falslev and Sprinkle. Playing with refs for the first time aside from a closed scrimmage with Cal and playing perhaps a little too hard.

“Our guys’ effort was great but sometimes they’re playing too hard to where they’re not playing smart,” Sprinkle said. “It’s a fine line which we’ll get better at. I want them to continue to play hard but now play smart. But I’ll take aggressiveness over — if we’re going to foul, do it aggressive and make sure that foul counts.”

While the defense kept the Yellow Jackets cold most of the night, the offense needed time to heat up and separate the Aggies from the visitors. Despite holding down the MSU-Billings offense down incredibly well, the game stayed close for much of the first half. As late as the 2:21 mark of the opening 20, the Aggies were only ahead by three points (23-20). It took an 8-0 run to end the half to give USU a 31-20 lead at the break.

Utah State’s percentages on the two most important shots in basketball, layups and 3-pointers, were the main culprit for a lack of offensive production. The Aggies shot 9 of 21 (42.9 percent) on shots at the rim and just 2 for 11 (18.1) on 3-pointers in the first half.

“Early on I thought we were forcing shots,” Sprinkle said. “We were trying to hit the home run too quick. Instead of just moving the basketball and letting the ball find the open shot. And even we missed some open shots. We probably missed 20 layups, and I wouldn’t even say (just) layups, but shots at the front of the rim that you’ve got to make, whether it’s tips or layups.”

Whether it was nerves, cobwebs from the offseason or adjusting to new roles on the team, Utah State needed time to establish itself on offense, but eventually did. The Aggies went from shooting 39.4 percent in the first half to an even 50 percent in the second half, including a solid 6 of 11 from three.

Falslev, along with fellow returner from last year’s roster, Isaac Johnson, proved to be the main offensive sparks that helped the Aggies find their way on offense. Johnson had nine points at the break which led USU at the time. Falslev added eight in the first half, preceding an absolute takeover in the second half that led to his eventual 23 points.

With nine minutes left to play in the second half, Falslev went on a tear, doubling Utah State’s 11-point lead at the time almost by himself. Over a span of roughly two minutes, Falslev scored 11 points by himself, only interrupted by a 3-pointer from teammate Nigel Burris and a couple free throws from the Yellow Jackets. Falslev hit three 3-pointers himself in that run, sending the crowd into an increasing frenzy. That burst completely handed over control of the game to the Aggies.

“We don’t win the game without Mason,” Sprinkle said. “His energy and just his athleticism and his ability to get the ball to the rim. I thought he did a tremendous job and I thought he had some great passes. He had four assists and he probably could have had seven or eight easy.”

It was a great debut for the Sky View High School product, and also an emotional one. Falslev hasn’t played an official game in more than 1,300 days. His last appearance for any team came on Feb. 29, 2020, his final game with Sky View High School. After being a star for four years in high school, going on a mission and then spending the entirety of last season on the bench wasn’t easy for the redshirt freshman.

“Last year was probably one of the hardest years of my life. I’ve never been that type of position,” Falslev said. “Last year I knew I was going to make a change and work as hard as I could throughout the summer. And every day of the summer, me and (Johnson) were getting shots up, Landon was there with us. So I’m just thankful. What you put in is what you get out so it was really awesome to see some results today.”

Johnson’s impact on offense, though not as electric as Falslev’s showed what a shooting 7-footer can do for a team. His 13 points on the night included several mid-range jump shots and a 3-pointer. He’ll be able to force defenses to adjust from how 7-footers are normally guarded in the half court.

“It’s great because he’s hard to guard in ball screen coverages because he can pop,” Sprinkle said. “So now our guards have got to take advantage when he’s setting those ball screens of getting downhill and getting to guys on the ball to where when we throw it back to him he’s open. Because he’s a tremendous shooter But the other thing is he’s a really good passer. I don’t know if you saw him in high school or whatnot but he’s had some great passes in high school and he’s 7-foot and he can see over the defense. So we’ll use him in a multitude of ways this year.”

With the offense rolling as well as it did the second half, the Aggies maintained a 20-point lead up until four minutes left in the game. At that point the team began to take its foot off the gas and also had players who hadn’t seen the floor yet come in. Montana State Billings took advantage of that and closed with a 14-1 run in the final 4:01 of the game, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that cut the score to within 10 points.

The Aggies’ rolled with a starting lineup that included Brown, Falslev and Johnson, along with Josh Uduje and Kalifa Sakho — three guards and two centers. It’s a lineup that probably shouldn’t be read into too much as injuries factored into what lineup combinations Sprinkle was able to put out there. Great Osobor did not dress as he’s currently out with an injury, and Max Agbonkpolo was only barely cleared for play again and was limited in his minutes.

Sprinkle noted that not having Osobor available hurt the offense somewhat.

“Not having Great here tonight hurt,” Sprinkle said. “He’s a mismatch and our pace offensively is way better when Great’s on the floor. And he’s really good on the block. We didn’t take advantage of (Montana State Billings’) switching like we needed to, to where when they switch we’ve got to get the ball to Isaac and you’ve to go to work and get the ball to the rim or Kalifa you’ve got to get the ball to the rim against a smaller guy. That’s where Great (is good), he’s a bully. He takes advantage of switching.”

Utah State had three players finish in double figures. Aside from Falslev and Johnson’s totals, Uduje added 10 points. Brown finished with just four points but led the team with seven assists. Sakho led the team in rebounds with eight.

The official start of the season will come on Monday when the Aggies open up their campaign with a matchup against South Dakota Mines in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. That game will tip off at 7:30 p.m.

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