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Utah State gets a rare low-scoring win in beating Fresno State to start MWC play

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Utah State guard Max Shulga (11) shoots as Fresno State center Eduardo Andre defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Logan, Utah.

Utah State guard Max Shulga (11) shoots as Fresno State center Eduardo Andre defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022, in Logan, Utah.

Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP

LOGAN — The one thing that has always had to go right for a Ryan Odom-led Utah State men’s basketball team was for the Aggies to shoot well.

On an afternoon when that didn’t happen, the Aggies came through with an impressive and unprecedented performance on defense, beating the Fresno State Bulldogs, 67-54, on Saturday in front of a well-attended crowd at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. The win gave the Aggies a 1-0 start to playing in the Mountain West Conference.

Prior to the matchup, the Aggies were 0-16 under Coach Odom in games where they scored less than 73 points.

Utah State’s bench put up an impressive 39 points compared to 6 for the Bulldogs. Sophomore Zee Hamoda had 13 points on 5 of 6 shooting — 3 of 3 from the arc — and was plus-24 on the court after he had struggled at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii last week.

Junior Steven Ashworth also had 13 points on 5 of 7 shooting from the field, and grad transfer Dan Akin had his fourth double-double of the season with 11 points and 13 rebounds.

“Coming into the game, I was focused on trying to affect the game,” Hamoda said.

Affect the game, he did. Hamoda played perhaps his most impactful minutes of the season in helping the Aggies overcome a tough and physical game. His first two threes were each in critical moments in the first half, the second of which sparked a 13-0 run for the Aggies to run out to a double-digit lead in the latter part of the first half.

Halfway through the second half, the Bulldogs were back in the game and had taken a 46-44 lead with 10:05 remaining. Hamoda delivered again with his third 3-pointer, sparking a 10-run capped by a falling baseline assist to Ashworth in the corner. Ashworth faked a defender into the air behind him then drained another 3-pointer as the Spectrum crown became deafening.

Winning a game like this one broke the trend of USU struggling in low-scoring games where turnovers run high. The Aggies had 11 assists and 16 turnovers, but they forced Fresno State into 13 turnovers compared to just eight assists.

Utah State’s ability to respond in moments of stagnation in the game was a significant step forward after cold streaks had doomed them in losses to Weber State and SMU.

“I respond by focusing on the next play, the next shot, the next possession,” Hamoda said. “As a team, we just go pick the guy up. ‘You’ve got it. Next one. Don’t worry about it. We’re going to get a stop and get back on offense.’”

Defense anchored USU’s ability to transition into making runs in scoring. The Aggies outrebounded the Bulldogs, 37-23, and held them to 37.3% from the field with only four threes. It was the fifth time this season the Aggies have held a team below 40% shooting.

“We had just enough spurts within each half to be able to get clean looks on the other end,” Odom said. “I thought our guys did a really nice job of answering every time they would come back and take the lead…We had that run in the middle of the first half which led us right to end of the first half where our guys were defending well and they were able to get out in transition and make some good plays.”

Offensive rebounds led to a 15-4 edge in second-chance points for the Aggies, thanks to some high-motor play in just eight minutes from starting center Trevin Dorius. The senior grabbed three offensive boards and had 7 points on the day.

“We talked about it before the game and we talked about it at halftime,” Odom said. “That was the first message was that there were rebounds to be had if we committed to going in there.”

The Aggies moved to 12-2 on the season. They’ll be on the road to face Air Force on Tuesday, Jan. 3.