Utah State cheerleader. Photo by Robert K. Scott
Utah State pulled off its best quality win of the young season, topping preseason MAC favorite Akron 65-62 and advancing to the championship game of the Cayman Islands Classic in the process.
The Aggies led for 78 percent of the game, and for each of the last five minutes and 40 seconds of the second half, but never pulled away from the Zips. USU’s largest lead came with 8:52 left in the game when it led 49-43. Akron never went away, making Utah State sweat it out in the final minutes of the game.
Over the last five minutes of the game, Utah State stretched its lead to four points three different times, only for Akron to draw back within two. The Zips never tied the game, but did keep pushing the game to a one-possession contest. The back-and-forth largely came from Great Osobor, who led USU with 24 points and 11 rebounds, and Akron’s star forward Enrique Freeman, who led all scorers with 25 points.
In the few minutes, Osobor had to be subbed out on defensive possessions since he picked up his fourth foul with 2:26 remaining and the Zips were going to Freeman in the post on every play. And while Freeman kept scoring (he had the final eight points for Akron), Osobor kept coming back with a layup or free throws of his own. All of it coming from great post play.
“He’s a good player,” Sprinkle said. “He would have been, I think the best returning player in the Big Sky. And even last year, I told him, you know, there were times I had to jump him in practice telling him he should have been the best post guy in the league last year. Because he has that talent.”
With under a minute to play, Osobor would make a huge play that didn’t involve putting the ball in the basket. A Josh Uduje 3-pointer missed the mark, but Osobor snagged the rebound over his opponent to preserve the possession.
Utah State nearly squandered that chance when Uduje lost his handle on the dribble but then Max Agbonkpolo came to save the day with a steal. After Agbonkpolo’s steal there was less than 30 seconds left and Akron had to foul. Only the front end of the one-and-one free throws was missed, but Osobor came to the rescue again with another offensive rebound, tipping the ball to Darius Brown who was promptly fouled.
Brown sank both free throws to give USU a 63-60 lead but the Aggies weren’t out of the woods yet. They gave up an open dunk, selling out on stopping a 3-point attempt, and had to in-bound the ball and hit free throws to avoid giving up a potential game-winning attempt to the Zips. The in-bound part nearly went horribly wrong as Akron nearly got a steal but the Aggies escaped thanks to the Akron player’s foot being just out of bounds when he tried to tip the ball off Brown.
Ian Martinez would take, and make, the two free throws after a successful in-bound play and the half-court heave from the Zips bounced off the front of the rim.
The Aggies didn’t manage to make it pretty, but they didn’t ever lose control of the game, no matter how hectic it got.
“Really proud of our guys and just the way they had a next play mentality,” Sprinkle said. “We faced a lot of adversity. We created that adversity at times with some silly turnovers and missed free throws. But for our guys to continue to keep playing and competing and getting stops and making the big shots when we had to. Couldn’t be more proud of this group.”
“It was chaotic. There was a lot of turnovers on both ends and it was tough,” Falslev said. “In those situations everything speeds up and It was just good to see us get a win proud of the guys proud of everyone. It was awesome.”
A major key to Utah State’s victory overall, aside from key plays down the stretch, was stellar 3-point shooting. Akron came into the game 11th in 3-point attempts at 31.3 and were making those at a 40.0 percent clip. The Aggies held the Zips to just 5 of 24 from deep, nearly halving their usual shooting percentage. Sprinkle praised his guards, who held guys like Mikal Dawson and Nate Johnson to well below their averages. Sammy Hunter, ironically one of the lesser-shooting players on Akron in terms of percentage, made four of the Zips’ five triples.
“Our guys did a great job guarding the three point line, especially at the end of possessions,” Sprinkle said.
Utah State will move on to face Stephen F. Austin in the title game of the Cayman Islands Classic. The Lumberjacks are 4-1 with two of those wins coming in this week’s showcase, defeating Loyola Marymount (86-76) and Drake (92-68).