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How Justin Bean lifted Utah State to win over Portland State

Utah State forward Justin Bean, wearing grey, takes a shot as Portland State guard Ian Burke defends
Utah State forward Justin Bean (34) takes a shot as Portland State guard Ian Burke defends in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in Logan, Utah.
Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via Associated Press

No practice makes perfect?

After being held out of Utah State’s practice sessions since injuring an ankle at Weber State on Dec. 15, senior forward Justin Bean went 5 for 5 from 3-point range on his way to scoring a game-high 29 points in USU’s 81-62 victory over Portland State Tuesday night at the Spectrum.

“I haven’t practiced really the last couple of days; I’ve just been doing a lot of rehab and treatment. Our trainers have been huge.” Bean said. “Mentally, I was in a good place just knowing that I couldn’t control the injury. But also knowing that I could bring some energy to the guys, and luckily, I was able to help out offensively, as well. That was a huge plus.”

Bean connected on 11 of 15 field goal attempts overall, while also adding 12 rebounds to record his eighth double-double of the season. Although he played in USU’s game against Iowa last Saturday in South Dakota, the Aggies weren’t even certain he would be able to play again on Tuesday.

Fortunately for USU, the swelling in his ankle went down after a couple of days off of his feet, and Bean said that other than a couple of painful tweaks in the first half, the injury didn’t bother him at all.

“Adrenaline is a magical thing,” Bean proclaimed with a smile. “... I didn’t know if I was going to play tonight a couple of days ago, so it felt good to just get out there and not have as much pain.”

Tuesday night’s contest wrapped up the nonconference portion of the schedule for the Aggies (9-4), who won’t play again until Dec. 29 on the road at Air Force.

The holiday break certainly comes at a good time for Utah State, which in addition to dealing with Bean’s ankle injury, was also missing two starters for Tuesday’s game. Brock Miller sat out with back spasms, an ongoing issue for the senior guard, while senior guard RJ Eytle-Rock twisted an ankle in the loss to Iowa and was also held of practice.

“Brock’s going to be fine. I don’t think he could have played, he needs a couple more days to get himself situated again,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “We’re obviously being very cautious with that. Anytime you’ve got a back injury and you’ve got a history of that, you want to be very careful. But we got back at 4 a.m. from the Iowa game. ... It was a physical game, he was in there a lot, and he woke up the next morning and didn’t feel well.”

Odom plugged sophomore guards Steven Ashworth and Max Shulga into Miller and Eytle-Rock’s spots, and after a rough start — the Vikings (3-7) opened the game with an 8-0 burst — both settled into their new roles and the USU offense took off. But where Ashworth has seen a lot of minutes coming off the bench this season and made a couple of starts last season, Shulga was averaging less than 10 minutes per outing coming into Tuesday.

The Kiev, Ukraine, native responded with a career-high 18 points in his first-ever collegiate start, knocking down his final six shots after a 0-2 start, and contributing three 3-pointers, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals in 28 minutes.

“Obviously, Max had a huge game; that’s why he’s up here with me (in the postgame press conference),” Bean declared. “It was just really exciting to see him get a feel for the game and just the flow and show everyone what he’s capable of, to be honest. I thought he played a really good game, a really physical game and made some good passes. He’s a crafty player, so I think that’s why fans love him.”

Shulga provided the most bizarre and downright perplexing moment of the game when, after snaring a defensive rebound, he let loose with a pass from half court that was intended for teammate Brandon Horvath underneath the basket.

Only it went in.

“Brandon started sealing his defender, so I tried to throw it over the top,” said Shulga, who didn’t know he was starting until Tuesday morning. “But as soon as I threw it, I thought, This is so far. And it ended up going in. I was like, alright. Thank you.”

After some discussion, the officials stated that despite the ball being launched from nearly 50 feet away, Shulga’s pass/basket would only be worth two points, leaving the Aggies up 31-22 with 5:17 remaining in the first half. However, coming out of halftime, the officials reversed that decision, leaving USU up 42-29 to start the second half rather than 41-29.

“The guy told me initially that it was a two; he came to the scorer’s table and said a pass is a two. And I said, ‘I’ve never heard of that. But maybe. I’ve got to trust you,’” Odom said of the referee’s explanation. “And then we came out of halftime, they switched it back. Had it been a deflected pass that goes into the basket, that’s only two not a three.

“But he threw it, it wasn’t touched and it just went into the basket. So, I guess it’s not up for their own interpretation there. It’s just a 3. A crazy play.”

The extra point didn’t end up mattering much, as the Aggies put the hammer down defensively early in the second half and went on a 13-2 run to put the game out of reach. While the Vikings ended up shooting just 33.9% as a team and going 8 of 27 from 3-point range, the Aggies, shot over 68% in the second half and a season-high 58.5% for the game, including a 12 of 21 effort from long range.

Senior center Horvath contributed nine points, nine rebounds and seven assists, while junior guard Sean Bairstow came off the bench to go 5 for 8 from the floor on his way to scoring 11 points. It was the first game action for Bairstow since the Australia native injured his left pinky finger in USU’s win over New Orleans on Dec. 11.

“Losing two players but getting Sean back was huge for us, especially in that first half,” Odom said. “I thought he came in and gave us a burst. He’s just a different type of player than we have on our roster right now. A guy that’s really athletic that can handle the ball and get to the basket. I thought he did really well for us.”

Despite trailing by as many as 25 points, Portland State ended up with four players in double figures, with James Jean-Marie, Khalid Thomas and Paris Dawson all scoring 13 points for the Vikings of the Big Sky Conference.

“Utah State’s obviously really good,” PSU head coach Jase Coburn said. “They’re talented and they play really well together. Obviously, they can really shoot the ball. We made it a point to guard the 3-point line and they shot it really well. I felt like our team went out and competed until the very end, so I’m proud of that, but Utah State’s a really good team so hats off to them. They took it to us tonight.”