LOGAN — In a Dee Glen Smith Spectrum brimming with its classic glory, boasting a student section full of those who’d braved the previous night’s cold camping outside the arena in tents, the Utah State Aggies lived up to the great teams that first drew camping crowds by taking down the No. 13 Colorado State Rams 77-72 in a brilliant display of defense and clutch play.
“Me and Josh always joke about, okay, there’s three things, three things certain in life: death, taxes, and the Hurd,” USU forward Great Osobor said. “And they were big time for us tonight. They were amazing. So I just want to give them a shout out. I like it. a shout out to all the people that came and supported us and just keep coming and enjoy the show.”
A classic court-storming for Utah State after its win over 13th ranked Colorado State. pic.twitter.com/FSdNyvCNL0
— Jason Walker (@jwalker_sports) January 7, 2024
Though the Aggies held a controlling lead late — as much as nine in the final minutes — it was the Rams who were in the driver’s seat for most of the night. They took a 10-point lead, the largest advantage either team would hold, with a 9-0 run in the first half. That kept Colorado State ahead for roughly 21 minutes of game time.
CSU’s offense prowess gave it the lead and allowed it to stay ahead for those long stretches. The Rams had to earn tough shots, but with a team full of shot-makers, the tough ones were eventually made by the likes of Isaiah Stevens (8-of-16 for 21 points) and Nique Clifford (8-of-13 for 18 points).
The Aggies also struggled to deal with the pick-and-roll game, as Colorado State’s two-man game with Isaiah Stevens and, well pretty much anybody, created significant problems for the Aggies. With the ever-preset threat of a pull-up 3-pointer off a ball screen (a shot Stevens drilled multiple times), switching to hedge against that shot was always going to be necessary. But that too often forced Darius Brown (though sometimes other guards like Mason Falslev and Josh Uduje) into post defense against any one of CSU’s bigs, players with five-to-six inches on the 6-foot-2 Brown.
The Rams were able to create plenty of points on simple post-ups or via Stevens passes into the post when the Aggies tried to avoid a switch and the CSU bigs found themselves wide open in the paint.
They do it to everybody,” Sprinkle said. “They get people off that shuffle cut. Or they get a switch and they punch in from the weak side and they high-low it. And it’s really hard to stop.”
Utah State’s defense managed to hold on in the first half, though, only allowing 32 points by halftime to CSU. That effort turned out to be massive since the Aggies’ offense struggled, hitting only 28 percent of their shots. Sprinkle put it simply, saying “We played terrible in the first half,” referencing his team’s shooting numbers.
But, thanks to that defense the halftime score only showed a four-point difference between the two sides, 32-28 (and only that because Stevens hit a tough-as-it-gets midrange jumper in the final seconds).
“To still be down by four was a credit to our guys,” Sprinkle said. “They made some key plays to keep it close.”
In the second half, the Aggies completely flipped the script on offense (and stayed the course on defense). They went from hitting 28 percent in the first half to 63 percent in the second half, including flipping a 1-for-10 mark on 3-pointers into a 4-of-8 one in the second half.
“We waited on the right time to capitalize,” Uduje said. “We stuck to what we know and work on day in and day out. And it worked. It worked. Really proud of the boys today.”
With greater offensive prowess in hand, the Aggies were able to make their run in the second half. It started with two brief moments of poking their heads past the Rams, taking leads of 42-41 and later 51-50. The real big moment came shortly after Colorado State took a 57-55 lead with 7:51 left in the game.
Starting with a pair of free throws from Javon Jackson and ending with an and-one, put-back layup by Uduje, the Aggies put together a game-changing 10-0 run over the course of four minutes to take a 65-57. That run just about burst the roof as the crowd reached close to its potential loudest.
“Great and I were told before we even played a game here, Spectrum Magic is real,” Uduje said. “And tonight we really did see it. The crowd was amazing. They was so present. I mean, I think I had two guys foul out, just hearing them chant left, right, left, right. It’s crazy, you know? And I think that really is what kick-started our 10 -0 run, honestly.”
Among several contributions to the run, center Isaac Johnson made a massive series of plays to help get the run to its peak. He drilled a left wing 3-pointer with a man in his face which, for the moment, boosted Utah State’s lead from just two points, to five. On the other side of the court, Johnson stole a pass when Colorado State tried to get the ball into the post.
“Thank God he’s 6-11 and a half because he needed all of it to get it over him,” Sprinkle said of the 3-pointer. “But I was more proud of his rebounds. I thought he had some big time, big boy rebounds down there in the second half.”
Johnson tied his career-best with eight rebounds, pairing that with his eight points in 19 minutes played.
Far from done, the Aggies still needed to close out the last four minutes of the game, which they did by way of several layups off press break and hitting free throws. Despite the Rams making 5-of-7 shots in the final 90 seconds, Utah State maintained an arm’s-length advantage the rest of the way, never letting its lead dip below five points.
Free throws wound up following an unexpected run of events this game. Colorado State were one of the best free throw shooting teams in the country, making 78 percent of their shots at the line as a team (good for 13th-best in the country), but ended up going a season-worst 4-of-11 (36 percent) for the night. Utah State, in contrast, had arguably its best free-throw shooting night of the year, going 20-for-23 (87 percent, second only to a 14-of-15, or 93 percent, performance against Northwest Nazarene).
Sprinkle’s quick assessment on the free throws was fitting.
“If we don’t go 20 for 23 (we) don’t win the game.”
Great Osobor played a big role in the amount of free throws the Aggies shot. He drew nine fouls, more than double the next-closest player on either team, and ended up with eight free throw attempts himself. And despite his struggles this season at the line (63 percent on free throws prior to this game) he sunk all eight.
Drawing all those fouls helped lead to a pair of CSU players fouling out, Clifford and Patrick Cartier, players that finished with a combined 33 points and weren’t able to be part of the game in the final minutes.
Osobor ended up with a team-high 20 points and had 14 rebounds, good for his seventh double-double of the year. Right alongside him in scoring, though, was Mason Falslev. The freshman guard finished with 18 points, his fourth game with at least that many points, and added six rebounds with three assists to his stat sheet totals. His continued good play makes it hard for Sprinkle to keep in mind that Falslev is still a redshirt freshman.
“I have to remind myself all the time, but I tell him it’s my job to get him out of his comfort zone,” Sprinkle said. “You can see how how good he’s gonna be and he’s just he’s so aggressive and he’s fast.”
This win marks the first victory by the Aggies over a ranked opponent since its victory over No. 5 San Diego State in the Mountain West Tournament championship game in 2020 and its first home win over a ranked team since downing No. 12 Nevada in the 2018-19 season.. USU were winless in its six games against ranked opponents following the SDSU win.
Along with breaking a streak of losses against ranked teams, Utah State is also inching toward history. The 14-1 start is now the third-best start in program history, only behind the 2012-13 team that started 20-1 and the 2008-09 squad that started 24-1.
USU will look to extend its great start, and its now 13-game win streak, with a home matchup against Wyoming on Tuesday.