Utah State downs TCU, claims first NCAA Tournament win since 2001 – Cache Valley Daily

Utah State center Isaac Johnson reacts after making a basket in the second half of a first-round college basketball game against TCU in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 22, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS, IN — It’s been a long time coming. A full 23 years plus eight days since the Utah State Aggies could last lay claim to a victory in the NCAA Tournament.

Utah State guard Ian Martinez (4) celebrates in front of TCU forward JaKobe Coles (21) after making a three-point basket in the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 22, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The counter is now back to zero.

Utah State surged late in the first half and exploded in the second half to fly past TCU 88-72. It was a fantastic offensive display, including a career night from Isaac Johnson, plus a (mostly) great night on the defensive end.

“Unbelievable win. Just the toughness and the grit our guys showed against a Big-12 team,” USU head coach Danny Sprinkle said. “That’s a really good team. We knew what we were in for when we drew that seed.”

The Aggies didn’t get off to the fastest start, and trailed by eight points six minutes into the game. TCU wasn’t missing many of its shots, and snagged several offensive boards on shots that did go awry. USU opened the game shooting just 3 for 10.

Two stretches in the rest of the second half altered the course of the game. The Aggies had runs where they made five straight field goals and later seven straight.

“Coach always tells to us keep shooting the ball and be confident in ourselves, and between the players, we always try to keep each other up,” USU guard Ian Martinez said. “Darius (Brown) was out there making good plays at the beginning, getting guys open, hitting the open guys. And we were like, ‘hey, if you’re open, be confident and shoot it, step into it.’ And that’s what we kept doing and eventually they started going in.”

That shooting coincided a little too perfectly with a couple of TCU cold spells (streaks of six straight and five straight misses). The Aggies were able to take a 43-37 lead into halftime.

Really the only complaint for the first half — and probably the game overall — was the offensive rebounding. TCU crashed the glass and had eight ORebs in the opening half. 11 of the Horned Frogs’ first-half points were second-chance points.

USU’s six-point halftime lead faced an immediate threat to start the second as TCU went on a 4-0 run in the first couple minutes. A big part of that was the first three shots by the Aggies clanked off the rim.

But the 43-41 margin TCU cut it down to would be the closest the game got the rest of the way.

Utah State center Isaac Johnson (20) looks to drive past TCU forward JaKobe Coles (21) in the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 22, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Johnson, who’d already posted a solid five points by halftime, got to work on his best 20 minutes of basketball this season. He scored two quick buckets to push USU’s lead back up to a multi-possession advantage, but “Fish” wasn’t done just yet. He would go on to score 14 of Utah State’s first 16 points of the second half. That included tough layups, free throws and a pair of 3-pointers.

With the up-and-down season Johnson has had, where he’s shown this same scoring potential but also had games where he struggled to stay on the floor, it was a very big step forward for the redshirt sophomore.

“There’s been a bit of a mental battle going on and this year has really taught me how to believe in myself and have that confidence in myself,” Johnson said. “It’s been such a great help to have my teammates and coaches have that confidence in me. And so when I have these games, I think it teaches me the player I can be, and I’m just going to try to continue to believe in myself and rely on my coaches and teammates when it’s ups and downs.”

Thanks to Johnson’s rampage put Utah State up by double-digits for the first time in the game and gave it a large cushion to work with the rest of the game.

Johnson was far from alone in terms of offensive brilliance. In fact, he wasn’t even the team leader in scoring despite his career-best 19 points. Ian Martinez took that honor, posting 21 to lead scorers on both sides. It’s Martinez’s third 20-point game in just the month of March alone.

One of the most important shots that came while the game was still relatively close was made by Martinez. TCU had managed to cut USU’s double-digit lead down to six, but Martinez sank the second of his three triples of the night to push the Aggies’ lead back to nine.

Utah State guard Darius Brown II (10) drives around TCU guard Jameer Nelson Jr. (4) in the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 22, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Brown left his own impact on the game, not only making a pair of 3-pointers at very timely points in the game, but also dishing out 10 assists. That brings his season total to 224, tying the single-season record at USU alongside Kris Clark.

“I’m proud that he got that because he’s one of the most unselfish players,” Sprinkle said. “He would rather pass than score. There’s not many kids like that in the country. He’s a point guard. There’s a lot of points guards out there that want points. He’s not one of those. He’s a true point guard, and he makes our team go.”

As crucial as the offensive showcase the Aggies put on, the physical aspect of the game was arguably its most important, and even facilitated that offense. USU scored 46 points in the paint and made 68 percent of its layups/dunks. Johnson, Great Osobor, Mason Falslev

Utah State’s not been terribly consistent in the physicality department, but the loss to San Diego State in the Mountain West Tournament was something Sprinkle harped on before Friday’s game and he believes that loss prepared his Aggies to have the proper mindset for this game.

“I really think playing San Diego State last Friday prepared us for this win,” Sprinkle said. “We practiced hard this week, we practiced physical, because I felt like we didn’t play as physical and as tough as we needed to against San Diego State, but sometimes losses help you win the next game. It happened tonight.”

That physicality showed on the defensive side just as much as on offense. Despite being out-rebounded 41-30, the Aggies never lost their edge in the paint. They blocked nine of TCU’s shots and despite the Horned Frogs reeling in 21 offensive rebounds, they only got 19 second-chance points from those, greatly limiting the impact of those extra possessions.

As great as this tournament victory is, and as fantastic as it is for the Aggies to finally get a monkey off their back in regards to the tournament, an even greater challenge awaits them. Purdue, the one seed in the Aggies’ region, is their next opponent. And with that comes a matchup with the reigning college Player of the Year, the 7-foot-4 wonder Zach Edey.

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