Facing a Wyoming team that hadn’t played a game since Christmas due to COVID-19 issues, the Utah State Aggies gifted the Cowboys a 71-69 victory Saturday night at the Spectrum that was clearly “tough” for the home team to absorb.

“Tough ending for our guys,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said of his team’s third loss in last its four games.

“This is obviously a tough one for us coming back to the Spectrum,” Utah State senior forward Justin Bean seconded.

“Tough loss,” Aggie junior guard Rylan Jones reiterated. 

Due to COVID-related postponements by other schools, the Aggies (1-3 in the Mountain West, 10-7 overall) hadn’t played a home since Dec. 21. After losing by two at Air Force, Utah State won by three at New Mexico in overtime, then lost at Colorado State, 77-72, on Wednesday. 

Despite Wyoming’s long layoff — the team’s first three conference games were postponed — USU head coach Ryan Odom expected a tough battle with the much-improved Cowboys (1-0, 12-2), and the visitors definitely didn’t disappoint.

Although the Cowboys were up by as many as 10 points in the first half and seven in the second, the game was tied 31-31 at halftime, as well as on nine other occasions.

The bulk of the credit for Wyoming ending it’s six-game losing streak to the Aggies goes to sophomore forward Graham Ike and senior guard Hunter Maldonado, who combined for 44 points while going 15 of 24 from the field and 13 of 16 from the free-throw line.

“This team’s only played probably four games in about 50 days,” Wyoming head coach Jeff Linder said of his team. “The start was good but the way we finished the game, for us to be able to finish it with a kill, which is for us is getting three defensive stops in a row.

“... But what can you say about that group of guys? We haven’t had a practice with Maldonado, Graham, all those guys. Yesterday was the first time we’ve had any of those guys in basically 10 days.

“For us to come out with that effort and for Maldonado to play 38 minutes, he was dead; he was dead tired. For those guys to do what they did without the practice just shows a lot about their character and their resiliency.”

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Trailing the Cowboys by seven points in the final four minutes, Utah State battled back and Bean tied the game at 69-69 when he knocked down a short toss in the lane with 20 seconds left.

But the 6-foot-9, 252-pound Ike, whom the Aggies struggled to stop in the paint all night long, was able to go high glass over 7-foot USU center Trevin Dorius for the go-ahead basket with 3.3 seconds remaining. 

Following an Aggie timeout, Utah State guard Rylan Jones inbounded a short pass to Brandon Horvath, then took the ball back on the run from Horvath and headed up the court.

With no one in his way, Jones launched a shot from about 28 feet away that caromed off the backboard as time expired. 

“Three seconds; not a lot of time. Coach drew up the play, and it was kind of my read,” Jones said of USU’s final possession.

“... I kind of had nobody in front of me. I shot it, and I knew it was probably going to be long just because I was going full speed and couldn’t really get my feet under me, but when I shot it, it was right on target, and I thought, ‘It’s got a chance,’ but obviously it was off the backboard.”

Jones, who came into the game averaging 7.4 points per game, ended up scoring 19 points while going 7 for 14 from the field and 4 of 10 from 3-point range.

He was equaled in the scoring column by Bean, who totaled 19 points while also pulling down a game-high 13 rebounds.

Junior guard Sean Bairstow (15 points) and sophomore guard Max Shulga (10), also scored in double figures for the Aggies, who played without starting guards Brock Miller and RJ Eytle-Rock.

While Miller continues to battle a back injury that will likely keep him out of action for the rest of the month, Odom said that Eytle-Rock started to feel ill on the trip back from Colorado on Thursday and ended up testing positive for COVID-19. 

Without Miller and Eytle-Rock, the Aggies’ perimeter shooting woes in conference play continued, with the Aggies missing their first nine 3-point shots on their way to finishing just 6 of 26 from long range.

Overall, Utah State shot 40.6 percent from the field, while narrowly outrebounding the Cowboys, 32-31.

Wyoming became the first Aggie opponent to shoot over 50 percent in the Spectrum this season, knocking down 52.2 percent of its field-goal attempts, including a 6 for 16 performance from 3-point range.

In addition to Ike (23 points, eight rebounds despite being limited to 27 minutes with foul trouble) and Maldonado (21 points, eight rebounds), the Cowboys got 14 points from Drake Jeffries and 11 from Jeremiah Oden. 

“Wyoming did a magnificent job,” Odom said. “I was really impressed with their performance today. Obviously, their big two came out in a big way.

“Ike and Maldonado kind of took turns punching us, and at times, our guys did a really nice job of taking it away. What you saw there is what you’ve seen all year against basically every team that they have played, minus Arizona.“

Odom, who hasn’t displayed a whole lot of fire on the court in his first season at the helm of the Aggies, picked up his first technical of the year when he became extremely upset when Horvath was called for a foul while trying to defend Ike in the post and had to be restrained by his assistants.

Unfortunately, the technical came just moments after the Aggies had just taken their first lead of the second half, 50-48, with 12:33 remaining.

Jeffries ended up making both technical free throws, while Ike made one of his attempts to abruptly put the Cowboys back in front, 51-50. 

“I do (get fired up) occasionally; occasionally I will,” Odom said when asked about the technical. “But I told them I’m sorry. We ended up losing the game by two at the end, and I gave them a couple of buckets there. And that’s not what a coach is supposed to do, so I apologized to them after the game. 

“The game is a collection of plays, right? And you can’t pick one and say you lost because of that, but when I do what I did, that’s a cardinal sin there. I shouldn’t have done that.”