Boise State guard Max Rice (12) battles against the defense of Utah State guard Josh Uduje (14) and forward Great Osobor (1) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, in Boise, Idaho. Utah State won 90-84. (AP Photo/Steve Conner)
BOISE – No matter the obstacle, no matter the opponent, it seems Utah State is capable of willing itself to victory. It’s latest dissertation on the subject, a 90-84 overtime triumph at Boise State. A win rife with cold stretches and moments of despair late in regulation, but also clutch shots and key stops.
“All I can say is that’s a fun game,” USU center Isaac Johnson said. “We like to say that the Spectrum is the number one arena and the number one fans. But the Mountain West is just crazy. (ExtraMile Arena) was crazy. It was so fun.”
Prior to leaving for Boise, USU head coach Danny Sprinkle spoke to the media and identified several key statistical markers he wanted to see his team hit — noting that victory would be hard or impossible if they didn’t reach those figures. One, was to have 10 or fewer turnovers, a longstanding benchmark that the Aggies have struggled to hit in recent games. Two, he felt they would have to hit at least eight 3-pointers in the game. And third Sprinkle wanted to limit Boise State’s offensive rebounds to less than 20 percent of opportunities for offensive boards.
The Aggies struck out on all three of those stats, committing 12 turnovers, hitting only six triples and yielding 14 offensive rebounds to the Broncos (36 percent of their misses).
And yet Utah State won.
That seems to be part of the charm of the Aggies. Even when their obstacles are partially (or entirely) self-inflicted, they still find ways to end up with more points than the other team (the only stat the is truly and end-all-be-all value).
There were hardly any bigger moments of overcoming adversity than when Ian Martinez hit a game-tying layup with one second left in regulation to send this game to extra basketball. Just a minute prior it looked as though the Aggies were free-falling into a second conference loss, despite having held a 72-70 lead with 95 seconds left in the game. Utah State allowed an and-one to Boise State’s Tyson Degenhart and on the other end, after Great Osobor lost the ball going up for a shot, Danny Sprinkle was called for a technical foul. Two more Degenhart free throws later and the Broncos led 75-72 with 1:05, and held possession.
With several straight possessions going in favor of Boise State, the Aggies needed some great plays and a little luck. They got both.
The next four trips down either side of the court went in favor of Utah State. Starting with the possession BSU had after the technical, it ended with a missed shot from Max Rice. Then Josh Uduje drained a baseline jumper with 10 seconds on the clock. USU fouled O’Mar Stanley with seven seconds and he missed the second free throws, only extending Boise State’s lead to 76-74. The Aggies got the rebound and played it forward to Martinez who hit a layup to tie the game up.
NO. 18 UTAH STATE TIES IT IN THE FINAL SECOND 😱
WE’VE GOT OVERTIME IN BOISE 🚨
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) January 27, 2024
In overtime, Utah State leapt out to an 82-76 lead, scoring the first six points of extra time. With that burst, the Aggies lived up to one of the many sayings Sprinkle repeats over and over to his players.
“Coach puts it up on the board pretty much every game. ‘The aggressor always wins,’” Johnson said.
That six-point advantage (the tail end of that run being at the 1:49 mark of OT) still didn’t settle things as the Aggies held the door open for the Broncos just a little too wide in the final two minutes. Degenhart single-handedly powered a 6-2 Boise State run, cutting USU’s lead to 84-42 with 34 seconds left. His steal and subsequent 3-pointer that led to that score being a rather frustrating moment for the Aggies.
Utah State buckled down after that letup (though there were still heart-dropping when it looked like USU turned the ball over again to the Broncos on an in-bounds play that had to be overturned on review), hitting six free throws to always stay at least four points ahead and then securing victory with a turnover in the final 10 seconds.
The back-and-forth nature of the final minutes of regulation and overtime weren’t unique to that section of the game. All afternoon the Aggies and Broncos traded blows like the Mountain West prizefighters they are. In the opening minutes, Utah State held a 7-0 lead and later a 19-11 advantage only for Boise State to storm ahead with a 15-3 run and eventually lead 39-37 at halftime. Just after the start of the second half, Boise State went on a 7-0 run to take it’s largest lead of the night, 46-39, only for Utah State to respond with an 11-1 surge.
In total, there were 12 runs of at least 5-0 between the two sides.
To meet the endless array of challenges, the runs, self-inflicted errors, and occasional poor luck, Utah State produced what is probably its greatest complete team effort of the season. Five Aggies scored in double figures, led by Darius Brown’s 19, the 18 points apiece by Martinez and Uduje, 14 points from Osobor and 13 from Johnson. Osobor and Johnson each recorded double doubles by grabbing 10 and 11 rebounds, respectively, with Johnson’s total being a career-best.
Every player on the floor had to make key contributions and it’s apparent by noting how each man made their mark on clutch plays. Take the final four possessions outlined earlier that led to the tie at the end of regulation. Uduje hit a jump shot, Johnson reeled in a tough rebound off a missed free throw and passed to Martinez for the tying bucket. Extend it to the first few possessions of overtime and you find Johnson hitting a layup to open overtime, Osobor hitting two free throws, then blocking a 3-pointer, grabbing the rebound and flinging it to Uduje for a fast-break dunk to cap that 6-0 run.
“I think that was the key to the game, making sure that everybody knew that they were an integral part of that win,” Johnson said. “Whether that was rebounds, steals, defense, getting buckets. I think we have been working really hard on sharing the ball and getting everybody included and making the extra pass. And I think it’s starting to click.”
Johnson’s role in the game was particularly massive. His 32 minutes played were by far a career-high and he more than justified the confidence to play him that many minutes. His rebounds, coming against one of the better rebounding teams in the country, were a big part of that. And even though he went 0-of-5 on 3-pointers, he still made an impact on offense as well.
“I knew that I had to do something to affect the game because my shot wasn’t falling,” Johnson said. “I have confidence that the next one is going in so next one I’m going to be 1-for-6, but I had to do I had to affect the game in another way.”
“The improvement (Johnson’s) made since June when we started practice is more than anybody I’ve ever coached,” Sprinkle said. “From Fresno State playing post defense to tonight, against one of the most physical teams in our league, to do what he did, just super proud of him.”
The win is a massive one for Utah State’s resume. It’s the first Quad 1 road victory and just the second Q1 victory of the season overall. A statement win, if you will. And while it’s no the end of the road, it’s a nice checkpoint along the way. For now, Utah State sits alone in first place in the Mountain West.