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Utah State’s quick start spurred a blowout of New Orleans as Aggies snap losing skid

Utah State guard Rylan Jones, left, dribbles as New Orleans forward Tyson Jackson (5) defends.
Utah State guard Rylan Jones, left, dribbles as New Orleans forward Tyson Jackson (5) defends in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, in Logan, Utah.
Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP

LOGAN — The Aggies made things extremely hard for their guests from “The Big Easy” Saturday night at the Spectrum.

Utah State opened its game against New Orleans with a 15-2 burst, led by 31 points at halftime and cruised to an 82-50 victory to bring an abrupt end its two-game losing streak.

“It was a good game. It was a game that we definitely needed coming off of two tough losses that we felt like we should have won,” said USU senior guard RJ Eytle-Rock, who scored 14 points in the victory. “In the locker room, Coach (Ryan Odom) asked how we were going to respond, and I feel like we responded the right way and got a good win.”

Eytle-Rock, who transferred to Utah State (7-3) this year after playing the past three seasons for Odom at UMBC, knocked down early 3-pointers to open the scoring in both halves. The London native ended going 5-for-8 from the floor and 4 of 8 from 3-point range on his way to a season-high 14 points.

“RJ can shoot,” Odom said of Eytle-Rock, who was just 4 of 18 from 3-point range this season coming into Saturday’s game. “He’s used to be guarded. He was the primary guy at UMBC, and everyone would game plan against him. And now he’s kind of gone back in time to where he was a freshman, and sometimes it can take a little bit of time to adjust to that.

“And his best days are clearly going to be ahead of him. He’s getting more comfortable out there. We’re challenging him to get in a little bit better shape, and he’s working on that, outside of practice, as well. And just being more confident and playing his game. I was excited about how he performed today.”

Senior forward Justin Bean also finished with 14 points for the Aggies, but came up two rebounds short of a double-double, while junior guard Rylan Jones contributed six points on his way to tying his career-high assist total with 11.

“Rylan just plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played, and I think our transition offense helped with that a lot,” Odom said of Jones, who previously totaled 11 assists in a 2019 game as a member of the Utes. “Our guys were moving up the court, and we were getting stops. And when we’re able to do that, we’re a tough team. So, we’ve got to keep that going.”

Junior center Trevin Dorius came through with a near-perfect outing off the bench, going 6-for-6 from the field — including four dunks — to equal his career-high of 12 points. The former Wasatch High star, who was slowed early in the season by a broken foot, also pulled down nine rebounds in just 17 minutes.

“There’s something cool about getting that first dunk,” Dorius said of his outing. “To see the ball go in, in any aspect of basketball, you start to gain more confidence. And basketball being a game of confidence, it really helps. One leads to another and you start to get rolling.”

As a team, the Aggies ended up shooting 48.4% from the field, including 13 of 33 from 3-point range. But with the home team leading by as many as 46 points in the second half, Odom played primarily bench players the last 10 minutes, so those statistics slipped late in the game.

Considering that the Privateers only had seven players dressed for the game, Utah State did all the damage it needed to do in the first half when it knocked down over 56% of its total shots and 9 of 17 attempt from beyond the arc. In addition to the 15-2 run to open the game, the Aggies also scored 18 straight points during one stretch to take a 48-17 advantage into the locker room at halftime.

Conversely, the Privateers (6-4) shot just 28.6% as a team, the lowest field-goal percentage by an Aggie opponent this season. New Orleans’ 19 turnovers were also the most by a USU opponent in 2021-22, while the Aggies set season-highs in both steals (12) and blocks (four).

UNO head coach Mark Slessinger, who also at the helm when the Privateers lost, 76-66, in Logan on Dec. 19, 2016, had a much more difficult time in his return to the Spectrum. Due to health and safety protocols, several UNO players and members of their basketball staff were unable to make the trip to Utah. Junior forward Simeon Kirkland (14 points, 14 rebounds) was the only player to score in double-figures for New Orleans, who was outrebounded by a mere 40-38 margin.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever made an excuse as a program, as a team, as a city or as a university,” Slessinger said. “Our job is to show up, to be there for our teammates, to be there for our university, to be there for our city and represent the best we can. Now, would I have loved for us not to shoot 28.6 % for the night? One hundred percent. But I don’t know if anybody missed one of these daggone shots on purpose.

“Through all of the adversity we’ve been through this week, we wanted to come and play as hard as we can and try to figure out ways outside of the box to try to shorten the game, change the game and play to an advantageous run. ... But the character of our team, I can’t thank them enough,” Slessinger continued.

“To go through this week and the preparation of practicing with seven or eight guys, to know what we had to come and face in a very, very tough environment against a good team at altitude, all the things that go with it, I’m so proud of how hard they fought and what they showed.”

The only downside of the victory for the Aggies came with about 10 minutes left when Dorius flew into snare a missed attempt by junior guard Sean Bairstow and slammed it home for a 68-29 lead. But Bairstow apparently broke or dislocated his left pinky finger sometime during that possession or the subsequent sequence, and immediately ran up the tunnel to the trainer’s room.

“I don’t know anything yet. We’ll see. I know it came out; it broke the skin,” Odom said of Bairstow, who was playing in just his fourth game this season after being sidelined by a broken wrist and a lacerated kidney. “... Hopefully he’s OK. I feel bad that that happened to him, because he’s obviously been playing well for us and we need him. But at the same time, we started the season without him, and we’ll kind of see how that develops.”

Bairstow’s injury actually ended up brining an unexpected moment of levity to the Spectrum. Among those trying to help clean drops of blood of the floor was USU guard Brock Miller, who has alopecia and is completely bald. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Aggie fans in the student section started chanting “Mr. Clean! Mr. Clean!” and Miller responded with a big smile and raised his arms to encourage the chanting to continue.

Moments later after play had resumed, Miller ended up knocking down a 3-pointer to complete a 20-4 run by the Aggies that led to a New Orleans timeout. During the break, Miller came out of the game, but he removed his headband and kept wiping up the floor near the USU bench to prompt additional chants of “Mr. Clean!”

“It’s always fun to see the student section get involved and the whole stadium cheering like that. It’s pretty electric as a player,” Dorius responded when asked about Miller’s hi-jinks. “Brock is one of the funniest dudes I’ve ever met. He loves it, and it’s fun to watch the crowd react to him like that. Getting out there and working the crowd like a true performer.”