For sophomore guard Max Shulga, the Utah State student section’s traditional “I believe that we will win!” pregame chant has spilled over into another part of his life with far more dire consequences than the outcome of a college basketball game.

“I just want to say that we’re going to win, for sure,” said Shulga, a native of the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv. “We’ve just got to stand through these tough first days, and then I hope — and I know — that it will go smoother. 

“We’ll end up winning.”

The Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine began on Feb. 24. While Russian president Vladimir Putin had been amassing military forces along the Russian-Ukrainian border for months, Shulga said the first week of hostilities in his homeland simply “doesn’t feel real.”

“Honestly, it feels like a video game,” Shulga said. “… But it’s obviously a real thing now. So, you’ve got to deal with it. It’s life.”

In an effort to show support to Shulga — along with USU volleyball player Kristy Frank, who is also from Kyiv — while his friends and relatives are facing the horrors of war in Ukraine, Utah State held a moment of silence prior to the start of the game against Colorado State on Feb. 26, two days after the Russian invasion began. 

In addition, the student section at the Spectrum held up blue-and-yellow cards to symbolize the Ukraine flag.

“One of the guys from the student section told me they had a surprise for me in the game, so I kind of excepted it — but not to that extent,” Shulga said. “The whole section lit up in the Ukrainian flag — blue and yellow — and that was really good. 

“I enjoyed that moment and appreciated all of the support.”

Some Aggie fans also held up signs declaring “We stand with Shulga & Ukraine” during the game, while several USU players, including Shulga, also sported blue-and-yellow shoelaces during the 66-55 loss to the Rams. Shulga also draped a Ukrainian flag around his shoulders during pregame player introductions, making an already emotional evening for Senior Night — it was likely the final home games for Justin Bean, Brock Miller, Brandon Horvath and RJ Eytle-Rock — an even more misty-eyed event. 

“Max is an incredible person,” USU senior forward Justin Bean said of his teammate. “He’s obviously thinking of his family, and he’s kind of updating us on how they’re doing. And he’s more positive than others would think with what he’s going through, and that speaks volumes to who he is and what he thinks about this team.

“He’s always put the team first, and I thought it was cool to see everyone supporting him and praying for his country, and just that collective unity from the city and the community.”

Shulga ended up playing eight minutes against Colorado State, all in the first half, scoring two points and dishing out one assist. Those numbers are fairly close to his output during the 2021-22 season, in which he’s seen action in 28 games, including two starts, while averaging 13 minutes and 3.9 points per game while shooting 47.1% from the field. 

Signed by former USU head coach Craig Smith after playing his high school ball at the Basketball School of Excellence in Spain, Shulga played for the Ukrianian national team in the U18 FIBA European Championships in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic eliminated an opportunity to play in the European Championships again in the summer of 2020, and also kept him from arriving in Cache Valley until just prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year. 

Shulga, who averaged 6.8 minutes per game in 23 appearances last season, briefly put his name in the transfer portal last April when Smith left USU for the University of Utah. But he ended up changing his mind shortly afterward, and Shulga has had some good moments for the Aggies this season, most notably a 16-point performance in a win over Portland State on Dec. 21. 

He also drew some national attention from that game when, while attempting to fire a half-court-long, alley-oop pass to teammate Brandon Horvath, the ball ended up going in the basket. Initially called a 2-pointer, the officials eventually ruled it a 3-point basket. 

While that play in the middle of an 81-62 rout was certainly an amusing moment, it’s obvious and understandable that smiles are much harder for Shulga to come by these days. 

“I’m checking in with him all the time — we all are. Our whole staff and players,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “… He’s one of four players that are playing Division I basketball from the Ukraine. 

“He talks to his parents every day. They’re staying in their house; there is no way to get out of there right now. It’s not easy. But we’re here to support him.”

Although Shulga said he hasn’t lived in Kyiv year-round since he left to attend school at age 13, his parents, Boris Shulga and Olga Sosnovska, are still in the city of nearly 3 million people that Russia appears determined to take over. 

“There’s a lot of emotions — mixed emotions — when I’m calling my parents,” said Shulga, who primarily visits with his family and friends in Ukraine via text messages and FaceTime. “I’m happy to see them, but at the same time I know there’s other people and relatives and random people just dying out there, fighting for our country.

“So, I’m obviously happy to see my own family happy and safe, but at the same time, I’m mad that all of that is going on and I can’t do nothing. I’m just all the way here. … It’s obviously nerve-wracking when you see stuff on the news. Not everything is real — some stuff is fake — but still until your people text you back that everything’s OK, you’re still kind of nervous about it.”

Shulga added that he’s proud of how determined Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the armed forces and people of his country have been to repel the Russian invasion despite having the odds decidedly stacked against them in terms of military might. But he noted that his fellow Ukrainians are “very tough people; very patriotic who will stand their ground until we fall.”

“They’re all so much into defending our country and standing their ground,” Shulga added. “They’re all out in the streets with their vests, ready to fight. It’s really nice to see that they care so much about our country, and not just giving it up for nothing.”