Ian Martinez dunks the ball in a basketball game vs Northwest Nazarene in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum on Dec. 9, 2023. Photo by Clint Allen,
Utah State is used to making more shots than it misses. The Aggies entered Wednesday’s game against Santa Clara with an NCAA-leading 53.2 percent field goal percentage but left Leavey Center having shot just 37.3 percent from the field to the Broncos 57.1 percent.
On three separate occasions, Utah State had stretches where it made just 1 of 11 field goals — early in the game, mid-way through the first half, and the early-to-middle part of the second half. USU’s star forward, Great Osobor had his worst shooting night of the season, going just 3 of 15 from the field for only nine points with five turnovers.
And yet the Aggies managed to claw their way to an 84-82 victory.
The key to Utah State’s victory on a night where it had the worst shooting night of the season came down to just getting as many extra shots by whatever means were available. The Aggies grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, forced 19 turnovers and were able to take 12 extra free throws. As a result, despite shooting nearly 20 percent worse from the field, USU only made four fewer field goals (28 to 32) and had a few extra 3-pointers (11 to eight) and made free throws (17 to 10) to make up that small difference.
That proactive approach to winning by any means at hand was something Sprinkle challenged his guys to do during halftime, a point at which USU was losing the rebounding battle and only had a slight edge in free throw attempts.
“I told them at halftime, it was like boxing,” Sprinkle said. “I was like, ‘You’re getting punched and then we’re doing something. No, you got to be the one throwing the first punch. You got to get out, you got to be aggressive.’
“And I told them, I said, ‘I’ll take it, some fouls. I don’t care. We’ve got to ratchet up our defense and our energy.’ And I thought in the second half they responded.”
And despite giving up the 82 points and nearly a 60 percent shooting rate, the Aggies made stops when they needed to most, something USU forward Max Agbonkpolo talked about being a major key for this team.
“We pride ourselves on defense,” Agbonkpolo said. “So it’s like, you know, even though we’re not shooting it good, we can go win the game on the defensive end. And that’s a big thing for us is just defense. Shots weren’t falling today, so we had to defend. Came through (in) last eight minutes, got some key stops and came out with a win.”
With Osobor not playing to his usual excellent standard, Utah State needed someone to step up and make plays. Two someone’s ended up being what the Aggies got with Ian Martinez and Darius Brown answering that call in the biggest way possible. The pair combined for 51 points on 16 of 31 shooting (51.6 percent) and also had a combined seven steals. Martinez ended up with the advantage in points, pouring in a career-high 28, while Brown had a season-high 23 to go with seven assists and four steals.
“They’re just good basketball players,” Sprinkle said of the duo. “They’re both electric with the ball in their hands. They can create their own shot. Now, some of the shots they made tonight were tough, And you don’t want to have to rely on those. But Santa Clara was packing the paint and making it really hard for us to get to the rim. And sometimes it comes down to guys got to make those plays. And thank goodness they did tonight.”
The contributions of those two allowed the game to stay close the entire night despite essentially everyone else not being able to hit a shot if they bribed the basketball gods (the non-Martinez/Brown Aggies shot just 12 of 44, or 27.3 percent). The largest lead of the game for either side was Santa Clara’s eight-point lead, 33-25, late in the first half. And it was a flurry of shots from Martinez and Brown that took that score and turned it into a 43-43 tie at the halftime break.
Neither side really seized control in the second half as neither the Aggies nor Broncos took a lead larger than four points until the final minute of the game (and never more than five at any point). There ended up being seven ties and five lead changes in the second half alone (11 and 14, respectively, the entire game). But with five minutes left in the game, Utah State made its move.
Brown and Martinez initiated the first part of a 6-0 run that would help flip the game from a four-point Santa Clara advantage into a slim Utah State lead (Spoiler: after taking that lead, USU would never trail again the rest of the way). Brown hit a tough long 2-pointer at the end of the shot clock, stole a pass on the next defensive possession and then finished the transition play on the other end with an assist to a Martinez layup. Josh Uduje would add a jumper to break the 70-70 tie with just under four minutes to play.
After that Uduje basket no Aggie not named Martinez or Brown would score points. The two would trade off in hitting crucial shots on offense or at the free throw line to stave off Santa Clara’s best attempts at avoiding what would become its third straight loss.
Perhaps no bigger shots were a 3-pointer from Martinez with 1:41 left in the game and a mid-range shot from Brown with 1:03. Neither were back-breakers and didn’t ice the game, but it kept Santa Clara at arm’s length in the closing minutes. Martinez’s three put USU up five, and when the Broncos answered with a 2-pointer of their own, Brown’s shot put the Aggies up by five points again. And when Santa Clara hit a pretty big shot themselves, a 3-pointer with 47 seconds left to cut USU’s lead to two points, 80-78, Martinez was able to hit four free throws in the closing minute to ensure no last-second comeback was completed.
Utah State now advances to 10-1 on the season, matching last year’s start through 11 games (Sprinkle also set a program record for best start by a first-year coach, passing Craig Smith who began his first year 9-2).
And with its second true road win in hand, USU will return to the Beehive State for a neutral-site matchup with San Francisco in the Delta Center on Saturday. That game will tip off at 2 p.m. against a Dons squad that just closed out a narrow 62-59 win over Seattle to advance to 8-3 on the year.