Utah State forward Kalifa Sakho (34) yells after his teammate, forward Great Osobor, not pictured, made a basket while being fouled against UNLV during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ian Maule) ut1
Most teams that face a four-point deficit with 15 seconds left in the game are unable to climb out of that hole with so little time left. Many will be capable of scoring two, or even three points to get back within one or two points, but winning requires getting a turnover or hoping the other team misses one or two free throws so the given team can tie it up before the buzzer sounds. Often, the best hope for those trailing teams is to get a four-point play — have a shooter get fouled on a 3-pointer.
Utah State faced such a situation, trailing by four points late, but didn’t get a four-point play, though still managing to win since they went with the big-brain play: a five-point possession.
With 14.3 seconds left in Utah State’s road matchup with UNLV, sixth-year Rebels guard Luis Rodriguez hit two free-throws that may have felt like game-icing shots. It put the Runnin’ Rebels up by four points, 86-82, giving them, as ESPN’s “Win Probability” calculation put it, a 90.1 percent of coming away with an upset win over the 20th-ranked Aggies.
Never tell USU those odds, though, as its own sixth-year guard, Darius Brown, quickly dribbled the ball down the court and drilled a long, side-step 3-pointer. That put the Aggies within one point with 8.4 seconds left, but it wasn’t the only notable part of that play. As Brown let loose from distance, USU forward Great Osobor went to crash the board to grab a rebound that ultimately wasn’t necessary.
“I was like ‘If (Brown) misses, I need to go get that rebound,’” Osobor said of his thoughts in that moment.
What ended up happening was UNLV forward Kalib Boone hip-checked Osobor and the referees called a foul on Boone. Brown’s 3-pointer counted and Osobor would get free throws as the Aggies were in the bonus.
“(Boone) boxed me out, but I felt like he tackled me, low key,” Osobor said. “Thankfully, the ref seen it and they called it.”
Holy cow! Darius Brown hits a three and then an off ball foul sends Great Osobor to the line to try and take the lead.
FIVE POINT PLAY?
86-85 UNLV with 8.5 to go. CBS Sports Network.pic.twitter.com/w6niAs6ISj
— Mid-Major Madness (@mid_madness) January 13, 2024
A 30-second timeout gave Osobor plenty of time to consider the most important shots of his game. He’d already scored 18 points in the second half, and was 10 of 11 on free throws at the moment, but USU needed at bare minimum, one more made free throw, and two would flip the odds of winning entirely in the Aggies’ favor.
During the timeout, USU head coach Danny Sprinkle placed his full confidence in his star forward, telling Osobor, “You’re built for this.” His teammates shared similar confidence, telling him “You’ll do what you do,” a nod of confidence built on a season where the Montana State transfer has averaged nearly 19 points per game.
With the belief of his coaches and teammates behind him, Osobor calmly stepped up to the line a drilled both. Utah State advantage 87-86.
Oh, yeah, it’s probably also worth mentioning that’s the first time the Aggies had led all afternoon. By one point. With 8.4 seconds left in the game.
UNLV had one last chance to regain its long-held lead, but the Aggies snuffed it out, Kalifa Sakho forced a tough shot from Dedan Thomas which missed. Utah State escaped Las Vegas with a W. The thrilling, improbable, absurd manner of victory preserved USU’s now 15-game winning streak which stands alone as the longest in the nation.
“That was a grit win. A culture win. A belief win. A program win. You name it,” Sprinkle said.
The win is perhaps another example the principle of staying within striking distance so you always have a chance of making a run at the crucial moment. UNLV may have led by as many as 13 points and for 39:04 of the 40-minute game, but Utah State never allowed the Rebels to sit comfortably with their lead. UNLV took an 11-point lead just six minutes into the game, but the Aggies would draw within one possession twice in the first half and then six more times in the second half (excluding the final five-point play).
“It felt like (UNLV) dominated the first 39 minutes of 51 seconds,” Sprinkle said. “I kept looking up like, I can’t believe we’re down five. I can’t believe we’re down six. I couldn’t believe we’re down seven and half time.”
UNLV made it super-tough for the usually stingy Aggie defense to get the stops they’re used to getting. The Rebels gave USU — who often dominate the paint with rebounds, shots at the rim and drawing fouls — an overdose of its own medicine. UNLV scored 34 points in the paint while attempting 30 free throws throughout the game. Boone and Rob Whaley had their way against USU’s interior, especially in the first half. All of the Aggie’ bigs — Isaac Johnson, Osobor, Sakho and Karson Templin — got a crack at stopping the UNLV post guys, but sustained success was really hard to come by. The two combined for 29 points and accounted for 13 of the Rebels’ free throws.
All in all, the 86 points allowed by USU broke the previous season-high for the Aggies (84 to Southern Utah) as UNLV shot 53 percent from the field in the first half to build its early lead.
Utah State’s response came from two different players for two different stretches of the game. In the first half, Ian Martinez’s red-hot shooting prevented the Aggies from going down by 20-plus points. The senior guard hit six 3-pointers on the day, a new career high for him, and he finished with 24 points to tie with Osobor for the team lead in scoring.
“Ian’s awesome. I know he’s struggled a little bit the past two games. But right before the game, I literally told Ian, ‘This is they type of game you’re built for. We on the road, no one here wants us to win. Go show what you do.’ And Ian’s a tough shot-maker. You get him the ball, he sees one or two go in it’s a long night. So we just made a point to try and get Ian shots and he responded,” Osobor said.
In the second half, Osobor took over. He’d scored just four points in the opening 20 minutes but he went off in the latter end of the game. The junior forward scored 20 of his aforementioned 24 points in the second half and he finished with 14 rebounds. A big key to his game, though, was rallying himself after missing the potential game-tying layup. A play that in most universes would have led to an Aggie loss. But he fought back and made a huge play.
“Two years ago, I don’t know if he would have done that, to be honest. He’s really grown physically, spiritually, mentally, like all of it,” Sprinkle said. “And the way teams are going to have to play him, he has to get to the next play. He’s going to miss layups. He’s going to miss free throws, turn the ball over. But our entire team we (say), get to the next play.”
Along with Osobor taking over the game in the second half, the Aggies also stopped turning it over so much. On Friday, Sprinkle made the claim that Utah State couldn’t beat UNLV if they turned it over more than 10 times, the Rebels being an incredibly dangerous team in transition. Despite the warning, USU turned the ball over at a higher-then-usual rate in the first half, giving up seven. UNLV took full advantage in the first half, getting numerous easy buckets. But in the second half Utah State only turned it over four times, finishing with just 11. Technically over that line, but it exemplified how close this game ended up being to a loss.
While Utah State’s efforts in rallying were notable by itself, the Aggies were beneficiaries of a couple calls by referees late which form part of the story of this game. One of those came with just under two minutes left in the game. The ball appeared to go off the hands of Mason Falslev on an out-of-bounds call, but officials initially gave the ball to USU and upheld the play upon review despite what video appeared to show. The foul called on Osobor with eight seconds left is also fairly uncommon in late situations (USU did get a similar call in their favor in the first half on a Martinez made three)
“The game’s over. The Aggies won,” Sprinkle joked, but did add this thoughts moments later: “Just to be truthful, I though it was off Mason from what I saw. I don’t know. But I also do know that they got that dunk where I wanna say the ball was on that kid’s fingertips when those red lights went off and they got that dunk. I think that was just the basketball gods rewarding us.”
The play mentioned by Sprinkle that went in favor of UNLV was a dunk by Boone with 8:43 left in the second half which occurred at the very end of the shot clock and required review. Officials upheld the initial call of a good basket. Another play the Aggies felt went against them was the missed layup by Osobor just before Rodriguez’s free throws put UNLV up with 14 seconds left. Osobor said he thought he was fouled in the attempt.
Utah State’s favorable calls ended up being a little more noticeable considering the immediate impact. Right after the Falslev out-of-bounds call, Brown hit a 3-pointer to cut UNLV’s lead to 83-80 with 90 seconds left. And the foul on Osobor after Brown’s other clutch 3-pointer, well…we’ve gone over why that mattered.
Aside from the 24 points apiece for Osobor and Martinez, Brown was the only other double-digit scorer for the Aggies, but his two clutch 3-pointers were among the most important shots of the game. Josh Uduje added nine points off the bench, he joined Martinez as key offensive producers in the first half. Sprinkle also singled out Sakho as having a big defensive impact, including the contest on the final possession. Sakho scored seven points and tied his season high with five rebounds.
Up next for the Aggies is another very rough test, a road game at New Mexico. Earlier today, the Lobos crushed No. 19 San Diego State by 18 points, showing how tough winning in The Pit is and will continue to be.