LOGAN – Utah State got itself into a proper dog fight on Saturday as it took on UC Irvine. The two sides sparred for 40 minutes with all the hallmarks of a physical game present in spades — physical play, fights for rebounds, superman dives for loose balls, everything was there.
“We knew coming into the game that they were a really physical team,” Utah State freshman guard Mason Falslev said. “Hats off to that team because they played hard and they crashed the boards and they played super well.”
And although compliments were due to the Anteaters, in the end, Utah State finished stronger. The Aggies dug deep and responding to the challenges from the coaching staff, pulling out a 79-69 victory.
“That’s a really good team,” USU head coach Danny Sprinkle said of UC Irvine. “And I told our team on Wednesday, on Thursday, on Friday and today. I know how tough it is to beat Irvine. They’re not going to beat themselves. And I played against those guys too many times. I know how tough and physical they are.”
The first half saw most of the back-and-forth action, with 13 lead changes and both sides leading for roughly equal stretches of time (UC Irvine did hold a slight edge). UCI guard Justin Hohn provided an early and often test for the Aggies. He scored 10 of UC Irvine’s first 12 points and finished with a game-high 21 points.
Also in the first half, UCI’s freshman guard Derin Saran provided a similar scoring punch when Hohn spent time on the bench. Saran scored nine points in the first half with him and Hohn combining to shoot 9 of 13 from the field with a combined 23 points.
UC Irvine stretched the Aggies defensive efforts to its limit, poking and prodding at every potential opening and at times forcing its way to the basket and nailing close 2-pointers. Along with that persistence, Sprinkle said the Anteaters also “beat us at our game the first half.”
“(UC Irvine) got every loose ball,” Sprinkle said. “They made every toughness play. They got offensive rebounds. They made shots.”
Despite those first-half struggles, the Aggies went into halftime with a lead, 42-41, largely thanks to some great early play from Falslev and Ian Martinez on offense, filling in the scoring role as one of USU’s normal scoring sources started the game cold.
Great Osobor, dealing with an eye injury suffered in the game against Saint Louis (and donning goggles to protect his eyes), did not start the game off in his usual dominant form. He missed his first three attempts from the field, going 1 of 5 to start the game overall. That left a void to be filled and Falslev and Martinez met the challenge. Falslev went above and beyond, finishing the game with a team-high 19 points, tying the career-high of his young career.
Falslev shot 8 of 12 from the field, including 3 of 4 from 3-point land. His scoring proved electric, but Martinez was electric in his own way. Although he had 12 points of his own (tied for third-most among Aggies), his play on defense created momentum for Utah State. Martinez poked numerous passes away, recording two steals, and also recovered numerous 50/50 balls to pave the way toward an Aggie victory.
“Those are momentum plays,” Sprinkle said. “And you’ve seen what momentum does in the Spectrum to teams. When you’re making those effort plays the place goes bonkers.”
In the second half, Osobor got back to his usual self on offense, making all five of his field goal attempts in the latter 20 minutes. Along with Falslev, Martinez, plus 12 points from Josh Uduje, it opened the door for the Aggies to go on a runs of 6-0 and later 13-0 in the first part of the second half.
The key to an Aggie victory, though, didn’t come from the stellar offense (granted it really, really helped), rather from the defensive execution in the second half. UC Irvine shot 58.6 percent from the field in the first half and scored 41 points. In the second half, those numbers went down to 35.7 percent and 28.
Sprinkle said his halftime message to the team was to pick things up on the defensive end and to simply guard better.
“It was more of a toughness deal,” Sprinkle said. “I just felt like we were getting out-toughed. We weren’t quick to the ball. Like there’s loose balls and they were getting them, and they just had a little more urgency to them. And in the second half, I thought it, I thought it flipped.”
Of particular note was limiting the impact of Hohn. Although he finished the game with 21 points and went 8 of 11 from the field, after the first few minutes, and especially in the second half, Hohn’s influence on the game wasn’t quite there. A large part of that came because Darius Brown was assigned mid-game to guard the hot hand and did a spectacular job.
“Darius came up and said, ‘Coach, put me on him,’” Sprinkle said. “And that’s why Darius was the defensive player of the year last year in the Big Sky. And I thought he did a good job making it hard on him.”
UC Irvine didn’t make things easy toward the end of the game, though. The Anteaters made a push in the final five minutes of the game, dropping what was a Utah State 15-point lead all the way down to seven points with 2:04 remaining — plenty of time for a late rally to tie.
But Utah State remained calm and, despite a couple of minor mistakes the Aggies held firm and even pushed the lead back up to double-digits in the closing minutes.
The win is the Aggies best of the season based on most computer rankings, including the ones from KenPom. Based on those rankings, it’s the first win for USU against a team among the top 100 teams in Division I.
Utah State will remain at home the next two games, taking on San Diego on Wednesday and then Northwest Nazarene on Saturday.