Utah State men’s basketball team. Photo by Tristan Hartfiel
With 12:39 left in Utah State’s matchup with Saint Louis the Aggies looked to be in perfect shape to cruise to their first road win of the season. A layup from forward Great Osobor put USU up 20 points, 60-40.
But Saint Louis wouldn’t go away quietly, eventually whittling down that Aggie lead to just three points. But, thankfully for USU, the Billikens ran out of time and the visiting Aggies escaped with an 81-76 road victory.
Utah State had its big lead thanks to some dominant play from its two starting bigs, Osobor and Isaac Johnson. Osobor was his fairly typical dominant self. He led the Aggies with 24 points and 13 rebounds (his fourth straight double-double of the year
Johnson, though a starter in all seven of the Aggies’ games, has not been a featured part of the rotation, averaging just 12 minutes and 6.2 points per night. But he exploded for 14 first-half points, finishing with 16, good for his career high and second-most from any USU player on the night.
“It felt pretty amazing,” Johnson said of his performance. “Having to kind of sacrifice a year last year with a really good team and take a year away and redshirt. To be able to wear the jersey this year and put it on for our fans and make a difference for the team, and for our guys that hopefully made a difference late in the game with enough of a lead that they couldn’t come back. It felt felt pretty amazing”
“So proud of (Johnson) in just his effort and making shots,” USU head coach Danny Sprinkle said. “I thought him making shots in the first half really changed their game plan of how they kind of wanted to guard us and it kind of opened up Great at times and our wings.”
The Aggies as a team had shot 57.8 percent at the moment they took their 20-point lead, but it was immediately after the cementing the said 20-point advantage that the Billikens threw the first punch of their comeback attempt. Saint Louis head coach called a timeout when Osobor’s layup went in, and the Billikens came screaming out of the quick break to go on a 14-4 run, which slashed USU’s lead clean in half down to just 10 points.
That wouldn’t be the end of the Aggies’ double-digit lead, though. Starting with a Max Agbonkpolo layup and powered by a couple more inside shots from Osobor, Utah State went on an 8-2 run to push its lead back up to 16 points.
From there, though, it would be almost exclusively Saint Louis until the final seconds of the game.
Over a nearly four-minute span (from 5:07 to 1:12 to be exact) late in the game, Saint Louis outscored Utah State 13-2, a stretch that included an 11-0 Billikens run. That cut the lead all the way down to 76-71.
In that moment, desperately needing any points, Utah State got it from the player who’d had the most trouble scoring all night. Darius Brown, who’d gone 1 of 6 from the field at that point (including 0 for 3 on threes) drilled a 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock, pushing the Aggies’ lead back up to 79-71 with just over a minute left to play.
That triple didn’t ice the game for Utah State, as Saint Louis would push back to within three, 79-76, but given it gave USU an eight-point lead with 71 seconds left, it certainly had a huge impact.
“I mean, Darius Brown couldn’t buy a shot all game, but he makes the biggest three of a game,” Sprinkle said. “And then he seals it with the free throws.”
Those free throws Sprinkle mentioned came with 10 seconds left in the game, right after Saint Louis had brought the score to 79-76. That put USU up by five (and the eventual final score of 81-76). And with so little time left, Saint Louis was forced to rush a layup, which Osobor blocked, and failed on a desperate 3-pointer at the buzzer, which Ian Martinez blocked anyway for good measure.
The stop Utah State got in the final 10 seconds, was actually the first defensive stop the team had pulled off in over four minutes of play. Saint Louis had scored on seven straight trips down the court, be it free throws or a field goal.
During all this time, Johnson didn’t see the court. He played just 21 minutes the whole night, 16 of those in the first half. Sprinkle said it had mostly to do with the extreme small-ball lineups Saint Louis played much more of in the second half.
“Yeah, it was mostly defensive purposes,” Sprinkle said. “They went small. They almost went to four guards and then (Terrence) Hargrove who’s basically a guard. He’s a tremendous player and with their offense, they open up the paint. And so it’s really hard to guard. And with their curls we needed some speed out there. And just in case we wanted to switch one through five, that’s kind of why (Johnson) didn’t actually play as much in the second half.”
For all its flaws throughout the second half, this game will go down as a win for Utah State, its first win in hostile territory this season. It’s another small feather in the cap of a young, inexperienced, new-look Aggie squad that’s in need of experiences like this.
“To come in here into this setting and to be able to get a win, technically our first road win, it meant a lot to us,” Johnson said, “to prove that we can work together as a team when we don’t have to have the Spectrum behind us.”
Along with Osobor and Johnson’s contributions, the Aggies got a double-digit performance from redshirt freshman Mason Falslev who had 11 points, five rebounds. Martinez, who made his first start of the season in place of Josh Uduje, scored nine points to go with three assists, three blocks and a steal. Brown ended the night with seven points and seven assists.
Saint Louis were led by Gibson Jimerson who had a game-high 28 points. The Billikens also got 18 points from Mike Meadows and 14 from Hargrove.
Utah State now advances to 6-1 on the season but will face another major test on Saturday when it takes on UC Irvine, a likewise 6-1 squad. Though the Aggies will have the benefit of playing that game in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum.