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How Utah State flipped the script to blow out Air Force

The Aggies blew away Air Force, 73-46, on the strength of their best shooting effort of the year.

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Utah State guard Steven Ashworth, wearing white, takes a shot as Air Force guard Joseph Octave, wearing blue, defends.

Utah State guard Steven Ashworth (3) takes a shot as Air Force guard Joseph Octave (0) defends in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, in Logan, Utah.

Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via Associated Press

With all due respect to John Denver, the Aggies’ first game against Air Force was a “Rocky Mountain Low.”

Utah State’s offensive performance at Colorado Springs on Dec. 29 was its worst of the year, with the Aggies shooting a season-low 32.7% on their way to a 49-47 loss to the Falcons. 

Five weeks later, the Aggies completely flipped the script, blowing away Air Force 73-46 Tuesday night at the Spectrum on the strength of their best shooting effort of the year. 

And not only did Utah State knock down 61.9% of its field-goal attempts, the home team actually only needed three players to surpass their scoring total in the loss at Air Force. Forward Brandon Horvath (17 points, nine rebounds, seven assists), forward Justin Bean (17 points, nine rebounds) and swingman Sean Bairstow (15 points) combined for 49 points in the rematch.

“We came in with a little bit of a sour taste in our mouth from last time when they beat us, so we had a little extra motivation coming in,” USU forward Brandon Horvath proclaimed. “We really locked in during the week on their sets and how they play, and we played way harder than we did the first time.”

Tied for eighth place with the Falcons coming into Tuesday’s game, Utah State (13-9 overall, 4-5 in the Mountain West) has now won three straight games after losing four in a row. And the Aggies still have two more games at home this week as they host San Jose State on Thursday in a game postponed from New Year’s Day and UNLV on Saturday afternoon. 

“Excited for the guys, but certainly, we’re not satisfied,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “There’s a lot of ball to be played. We’re excited about being able to play three home games in a week here, but we know it’s going to be challenging. Our clear focus now is to learn from this game. Things that we did well, things that we fell a little bit short on, and then begin to rest and prep for San Jose State.”

In addition to Horvath, Bean and Bairstow, the Aggies also got 10 points from sophomore guard Steven Ashworth, while welcoming the return of Rylan Jones. The junior guard, who hadn’t seen action since suffering a concussion in a loss at Fresno State on Jan. 18, came off the bench to score five points in 18 minutes.

“I felt pretty good,” Jones said. “My conditioning is down a little bit. It was a long week and a half, two weeks, where I really didn’t get much exercise. So I felt that a little bit. But in the second half I kind of caught my second wind and started to feel better. 

“I’m just extremely grateful to be out there again playing the game I love with teammates I love, who are playing very well right now. And I just wanted to come in and contribute.”

The Aggies, who knocked down just 1 of 19 3-point attempts at Colorado Springs, went a decent 5 for 16 from long range on Tuesday. However, they outrebounded Air Force by a 36-16 margin, went an incredible 16 of 17 from the free-throw line and totaled 20 assists on 26 field goals.

“For us, offensively, we played much better in this particular game than we did the first time we played them,” Odom said. “The ball was moving, as evidenced by the 20 assists. We did have too many turnovers (18), but you have to give Air Force credit. They are really good. I’ve watched them play a ton of their games.”

Meanwhile, Air Force (10-10, 3-6) never led by more than two points, trailed 36-23 at halftime and were down by as many as 30 points late in the game. 

The Falcons, who are 0-13 all-time in Logan, had two players finish with nine points (Joseph Octave and Nikc Jackson), but no visitor reached double figures as Air Force shot just 36% as a team, including 2 for 15 from 3-point range. 

Air Force’s leading scorer, A.J Walker (15.8 ppg), finished with just eight points, while AF head coach Joe Scott’s second-leading scorer, Ethan Taylor (9.8 ppg), had seven points before going out with an apparent ankle injury with eight minutes left in the first half. 

“They went through their little rough patch, but when you’re experienced and you’ve gone through it and you’ve had success, you stay with it,” Scott said of the Aggies. “They’re doing a really good job right now of knowing who they are, staying with it, and as you do that, players start to come around and start to play to their capabilities. 

“They’re a very unselfish team and played that way tonight. They played extremely well, they always play extremely well here historically.”

Air Force’s 27-point loss means that Utah State has now handed its last three opponents their worst loss of the season. Prior to Tuesday, the Aggies beat San Diego State by 18 points at the Spectrum and clobbered Nevada by 29 points at Reno. 

It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the Aggies, who had lost four straight games and five out of six in Odom’s first season before upending the Aztecs on Jan. 26. 

“At the start of the year, I think we were top 15 in the country in assists per game, and then we kind of got away from that in that stretch to start conference play,” Jones noted. “And credit to (my teammates), they figured that out and watched a lot of film — I didn’t get to see the film — but we’ve done that as a team the last three games, and it’s been pretty evident.”

About the only thing the Aggies didn’t deliver on Tuesday was free frozen custard for their fans. A promotion at Culver’s promised complimentary desserts for all fans if Utah State scored 75 or more points, but the bench was only able to contribute two points after Odom pulled his starters with 2:19 to go. 

However, USU fans — many of them students sporting free T-shirts in the colors of the Spectrum’s seats — were treated to two alley-oop dunks by Bairstow, along with a driving baseline slam by Bairstow just before halftime.

That dunk was Utah State’s 16th field goal of the night, just one fewer than they had the entire game at Colorado Springs. A 3-pointer by Ashworth 38 seconds in the second half was the Aggies’ 17th field goal, and the home team just continued to pile it on from there. A driving layup by Bairstow with 13:44 to go left the score at 52-33 and USU’s field-goal percentage at a surreal .733.

The Falcons briefly displayed hope of a comeback when after Nikc Jackson’s shot was blocked by Aggie Trevin Dorius into a cheerleader and a fan in the first row, the Air Force forward came back to dunk on Dorius and then completed the three-point play to pull Air Force to within 15 points. Jackson then enticed Dorius into an offensive foul at the other end, sending USU’s 7-foot center to the bench with five fouls with 10 minutes left. 

However, that sequence only served to fire up the Aggies, who outscored the Falcons 17-2 over the next seven minutes to turn the contest into a runaway. 

“We’ve been feeling those games where we kind of have it in the first half or late in the second half and then let it slip away,” Horvath said. “So we kind of know what it takes, and we just huddled up and said, ‘Let’s get this right now,’ and kind of put the hammer down and finished the game.”