In a game few expected to be competitive, Utah State men’s basketball found itself fighting tooth and nail to keep its undefeated record down the stretch.
Utah State moved to 6-0 on the season with a hard-fought win at home, fighting off an inspired effort from the Utah Tech Trailblazers to win, 86-81.
The Aggies got back on the court for the first time in nine days to play what most expected to be a lighter nonconference game with the Trailblazers, and turned out to be anything but. Utah State struggled to break away as the Blazers stymied every opportunity that they had to run away with the game in the first half. The game was tied nine times and had 24 lead changes.
Junior guard Steven Ashworth came off the bench and led the Aggies in scoring for the third time this season, scoring 27 points and shooting 7-12 from the 3-point line. 16 of Ashworth’s points came in the second half.
Graduate forward Taylor Funk put in 20 points, his third game with 20 or more points in the last four games, and senior Dan Akin put in 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
“It’s hard to get back into the swing of things after a Thanksgiving break and after a few days off,” Ashworth said. “But I was proud of the guys and the way that we found a way to win, especially without our point guard.”
Ashworth was thrust into a larger role after just under four minutes of play when senior point guard Rylan Jones sustained an apparent injury to his face from hard contact at the 16:18 mark of the first half. Jones stayed on the ground for several minutes and was more or less carried to the locker room by medical staff. His injury was not disclosed after the game.
“Rylan’s huge to this team,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “He gets us started and makes things go, and he makes plays. He’s a really good player, so we’re hopeful that he’s going to be OK and get back.”
Utah Tech played perhaps its best basketball of the year despite picking up its fifth loss. Senior guard Cameron Gooden scored a career-high 29 points — the second player this season to have a career-high against the Aggies — and had 20 points at the end of the first half.
Odom said Gooden’s big night came from difficulties the Aggies had combatting screens from the physically imposing frontcourt of the Trailblazers.
“He just did a good job of creating separation,” Odom said. “They screened really well for him … You can see those guys they have. They’re big. They come screen against Rylan or Steven (Ashworth), that’s a big hit they’re taking … He did a really nice job of reading how we were playing him.”
Helped by Gooden shooting 5-for-7 from the 3-point line, the Trailblazers shot 52% from the arc as a team.
The first half was a back-and-forth affair for all 20 minutes as neither team got ahead by more than 3 points at any time, and it seemed on multiple occasions like that Aggies were about to make a run, but Utah Tech uncannily countered every scoring punch with a big shot to halt Utah State’s momentum.
The Trailblazers held their largest lead of the game after about a minute into the second half when they led 41-36, but the Aggies countered with a 9-0 run, the longest scoring run of the night for either team, to retake the lead.
After a timeout with 11:45 left to play, the Aggies finally caught fire, spurred on by a huge 3 from senior guard RJ Eytle-Rock. Eytle-Rock only scored 5 points, but they happened within three minutes and were part of a 4:38 stretch in the second half when USU outscored the Trailblazers, 17-7. Eytle-Rock’s 3 was the final lead change of the game, putting the Aggies up for good.
“I thought one of the key players in this particular game for us was RJ,” Odom said. “RJ was thrust into it again and he made two big buckets … A guy that started all of last year that easily could be on the bench whining about not playing, but that’s not who he is as a person. He’s a true Aggie, and I was happy to see him perform well.”
The Aggies scored over 85 points for the fourth straight game. They are averaging 87 points per game this season.