After posting a historically good 12-1 non-conference record, how Utah State would handle Mountain West play became a highly anticipated question everyone in the conference wanted to see answered. And Tuesday’s matchup with Air Force gave at least some early indication.
Utah State blasted Air Force 88-60, the Falcons’ worst defeat on the season and the most points the Aggies have ever scored against them in program history.
In some fairness, the Falcons aren’t exactly the highest rated team in the Mountain West, coming in at 216th in the NET and 199th in the KenPom rankings. So perhaps it’s not the greatest indication of how the Aggies will eventually fare in a tough Mountain West, but road games against Air Force have been historically tricky for the Aggies.
Despite the fact that, since the Aggies joined the Mountain West in 2014, the Falcons haven’t posted a winning record (and USU has only posted one losing season across the same span), Utah State is a mere 6-5 in games at Clune Arena. Even some of the best Aggie teams losing to the Falcons. Both of USU’s previous successful coaches, Ryan Odom and Craig Smith, lost road games at Air Force, including a 19-point loss suffered by the Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta-led Aggies in the 2019-20 season.
“Winning here is really hard,” USU forward Great Osobor said. “The coaches staff stressed that for us. They made sure that we knew that winning at Air Force is really hard.”
USU started the game with a different starting five from its previous games. Head coach Danny Sprinkle opted to move center Isaac Johnson — who’d started all but one games this year — to a bench role and bringing Josh Uduje back into the starting five for the first time in seven games. It meant a four-guard lineup with Darius Brown, Ian Martinez, Mason Falslev and Josh Uduje to go with Osobor at forward/center as the starting lineup. Sprinkle explained that mostly to do with the matchup, what with Air Force fielding a lineup of players almost exclusively between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-7.
That lineup worked out pretty darn well, but it had mostly to do with Osobor bludgeoning Air Force as a small-ball five. He scored a career-high 32 points, starting the game by making his first seven field goal attempt (heck, even on his first miss eight attempt in, Osobor grabbed his own rebound and laid the ball in anyway). Osobor also drew numerous fouls, going to the free-throw line 16 times and making 10 of those attempts.
Osobor finished the game with nine rebounds to go with what is now his second career 30-point game (his other coming earlier this year in a 31-point effort against Southern Utah). It not only served as a new career-best, but also as a major bounce-back following two straight games where Osobor was held to single-digit scoring in which he also made just 5 of 23 field goal attempts. After the game, Osobor said he tried not to let outside talk about a couple of poor outings impact him and just worked hard. He also thanked his teammates for believing in him.
“All credit to my team under coaching staff because they stayed with me,” Osobor said. “Even when I’m not playing my best, they know I’m capable of.”
Behind Osobor’s stellar start (and an underrated hot-shooting start from Ian Martinez who went a perfect 7-for-7 on the night) the Aggies established a double-digit lead just over five minutes into the game. By late in the first half, Utah State pushed that lead to a then-game high 21 points.
At the moment Utah State went up 21 (3:04 left in the half), the Falcons put together one of two major pushes to try and establish some foothold on mounting a comeback. Air Force would hold the Aggies scoreless in the final three minutes of the half and score eight points themselves, good for an 8-0 run. The final play really took the wind out of USU’s sails going into halftime as Ethan Taylor hit a long 3-point shot at the buzzer to cap off the run. Despite going into half with such a big lead, the Aggies didn’t have as much pep in their step on the way to the locker room.
“The end of the first half, that was a sloppy play on our part,” Sprinkle said. “We turned the ball over first off, which wasn’t a good play. And then we allowed them to throw it to their best player just straight up the court and shoot a three. That’s something that we got to clean up.”
USU’s response wasn’t as drastic as an 8-0 but still effective in its own right. The Aggies opened the second half by outscoring Air Force 8-4 in the first few minutes, building the lead back up instead of letting the advantage fall into single-digit territory.
The second Air Force push came not too long after the Aggies’ second-half opening push. Starting at the 15:11 mark, the Falcons went on a 7-0 that sliced USU’s lead to 10 points, 52-42.
Utah State’s response was far more drastic than how it handled the Falcons’ pre-halftime run. This time the Aggies went on a 13-0 burst that squashed nearly all hopes of an Air Force response. By the time the Falcons ended the run, they were down 21 points again but only had roughly eight minutes to do anything about it.
“I was proud of our guys, the way they responded,” Sprinkle said. “There’s going to be a lot of runs in Mountain West play, whether we’re going on seven or runs or other teams. And that’s when you got to be disciplined.”
Falslev ended up playing a pretty significant offensive role in the second half. He scored 12 of his eventual 18 points in the latter half. He contributed four points in the Aggies 13-0 run and also had three points in a later 5-0 USU run. The freshman guard had seen similar struggles as Osobor, being held to single-digit scoring in each of his last three games after reaching double figures eight times in the previous 10 games.
Aside from Osobor’s 32 and Falslev’s 18, Martinez was the only play to hit double figures with his 17 points, although there were several other solid performances. Brown dished out eight assists (with zero turnovers) and had eight points. Javon Jackson, who played 24 minutes (most against a D1 opponent this year) had eight points, including going 2-for-2 on 3-pointers.
Utah State will face an even greater Mountain West test this Saturday when it welcomes No. 13 Colorado State into the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. The Aggies will tip off against the ranked Rams at 7 p.m.