LOGAN — At halftime of Tuesday’s Mountain West matchup in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, the 20th ranked Utah State Aggies led Wyoming, a team 191st in the NET, by a score of 35-33.
Not exactly the margin expected for the Aggies, who entered as roughly 15-point favorites in their own building.
The reasons behind the struggles weren’t exactly a mystery to the players. They knew why they weren’t dominating and they vowed to change that.
“Before the coaches even came in, we knew what we needed to do,” USU graduate guard Darius Brown said. “It was nothing to be said. It was just like, fix it. Come out, make your stamp on this game.”
Utah State would indeed “fix it,” starting from the first minute of the second half. The Aggies got seven straight stops and went on an 11-0 run. The double-digit lead established by that run never went away as Utah State built off that burst to eventually win by 24 points, 83-59.
The first-half woes were largely on offense, as the Aggies went cold on jump shots. As a team they made just 3 of 16 attempts that weren’t layups or dunks. That allowed Wyoming to pack the paint more in the first half and several of its defensive looks — including a 1-3-1 zone late in the half — to see solid results against the Aggie offense.
Wyoming weren’t creating scores of problems for the Aggie defense, but it was just enough to keep USU on its heels. They Cowboys attacked Utah State’s switches in the pick and roll, sometimes attempting to create mismatches on post-ups (much as Colorado State did last Saturday), but also found ways to pass the ball into the roll man and then look to pass out to the corners or across the key to take try and catch Utah State’s defensive rotations out of position.
Mason Walters feasted at times in this offense and he finished with 17 points for the Cowboys on a solid 6 of 10 from the field.
The fix for both of those issues came in one package as getting stops in the second half led to more open offense in transition. Sprinkle wanted to see more aggression in USU’s ball screen defense in the second half and he got it, which became a boon for the Aggies.
“It took us a little bit to be aggressive and fight through (screens) and to have our post guys at the level of the screen,” Sprinkle said. “Once we did that, that’s when we got some steals on their pocket passes and it changed the game in the second half.”
And once the Aggies got those turnovers it was a matter of getting out and running to create easy looks at the basket. Three times early in the second half, Great Osobor got behind the defense and after feeds from the guards was able to get several fast break dunks.
“When we started to break the game open, it was transition,” Brown said. “We were running out. The dunks, Great, all that type of stuff. It was getting stops.”
The fruits of Utah State’s mental adjustment at halftime spoke volumes as to their effectiveness. Utah State shot 60 percent in the second half, compared to the mere 43 percent of the first. And on defense they held the Cowboys
Oh, and the score. That also spoke pretty well to how USU did in the second half.
Why the Aggies even needed to have such a shift in mindset and find themselves again could be explained by the recent rush of positive emotions that came from the Colorado State victory and subsequent breakthrough into the AP Top 25 poll. Getting high on one’s own success happens to a lot of teams and it can lead to letdowns in following games. Sprinkle wasn’t really willing to call that half a letdown, quipping that “we’re not good enough to have a letdown” but he did talk about worrying about Utah State’s energy level after
“I was concerned about was our energy and our aggressiveness,” Sprinkle said, “because sometimes when you play such an emotional game you know like it carries over like it’s kind of hard to recapture that early.”
A letdown, one might say.
Semantics aside, the funk only lasted for one half, proving that Sprinkle has the full attention of his team, making sure they don’t get off course. Asked how he keeps his team in check, Sprinkle smiled and quietly stated “I’ve got my ways.” In more words, Sprinkle went on to effectively praise his program’s mindset which hasn’t let the outside noise permeate its day-to-day.
“We didn’t talk about being ranked. Not one time,” Sprinkle said. “We don’t talk about that stuff. We’ll show some of the good things that we did like, hey scout details this is what we talked about, we did a great job. Boom, here’s some of the things we’ve got to clean up. Now it’s on to UNLV.”
The ability to stay focused on the next opponent and never let up has given the Aggies a 14-game winning streak which now stands alone as the longest active win streak in Division I as Houston, who previously held that distinction, lost to Iowa State earlier in the evening. Brown, in a fashion typical of this team’s mindset, had a short response.
“Congrats to us.”