The National Invitational Tournament continues to be a decidedly uninviting place for the Aggies.
Oregon poured it on in the second half to beat Utah State, 83-72, Tuesday night at the Spectrum in the first round of the NIT. The loss was the ninth straight for the Aggies in the NIT, who are 2-10 overall in the annual postseason event, with those two victories coming all the way back in 1960.
“A hard ending for our guys, but at the same time, it was a great atmosphere,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “Aggie Nation showed up. It was a special night in a lot of ways.”
The Aggies (18-16) led Tuesday’s game by as many as nine points in the first half and 37-33 at halftime, but the Ducks (20-14) scored 10 of the first 12 points after halftime and simply overpowered the Aggies in the second half to disappoint the majority of the crowd of 7,023 on hand for Utah State’s first NIT appearance since 2008.
Utah State ended up shooting just 38.5% for the game after hitting on 45.2% of its shots in the first half. The Aggies, who knocked down 7 of 16 3-point attempts in the first half, connected on just 2 of 12 shots from the perimeter over the final 20 minutes.
Sophomore guard Steven Ashworth, who went 4 for 4 from 3-point range in the first half to help the Aggies overcome an early eight-point deficit, finished with a game-high 20 points and six 3-pointers. Senior forward Brandon Horvath, playing in his final collegiate game, went 7 for 16 from the field on his way to 15 points, while junior guard Sean Bairstow added 12 points.
Justin Bean, who has the option of returning for a sixth year, struggled offensively in what might have been his last game at the Spectrum. The senior forward from Oklahoma came up just one point short of another double-double (nine points, 16 rebounds) thanks to going just 2 of 12 from the field.
Bean became very emotional during the postgame press conference as he talked about his time at Utah State, but he said he still hasn’t decided whether or not he’ll return in 2022-23.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” said Bean, who played all but 37 seconds of Tuesday’s game. “Obviously, you look at the stats from the game and we didn’t shoot the ball how we wanted to. They were a really physical team. Give them credit. It made us uncomfortable. Obviously, offensively we weren’t great, but defensively was really where they took over. We weren’t filling up the gaps like we had planned.
“... But, I was proud of our effort. I don’t there was a time where we weren’t competing and giving it our best.”
Oregon played without leading scorer Will Richardson, who has missed four straight games with an undisclosed, “non-COVID-related illness,” while junior center N’Daly Dante also stayed behind in Eugene with an illness.
In their absence, junior guard De’Vion Harmon (19 points), senior guard Jacob Young (17 points) and junior guard Rivaldo Soares (13 points) stepped up offensively for the Ducks, who shot 55.9% in the second half and 50.8% for the game.
Oregon also went 8 for 19 from 3-point range, but lost the rebounding battle by a 41-39 margin mostly thanks to Bean, who was the only Aggies with more than five rebounds.
“I liked the guys’ effort,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said. “I thought they fought adversity better tonight. When things didn’t go our way, we kind of hung in there. And the defensive effort in the second half I thought was really good.
“In the first half, we just made scouting report mistakes, which are always so disappointing, giving 3s to guys we knew we couldn’t. In the second half, I thought we did a tremendous job. They only went 2 for 12, I thought we ran guys off the line much better.”
After spotting the Aggies the first basket of the game, the Ducks reeled off 10 straight points to leave Utah State feeling a bit stunned. But after calling a timeout at 16:25, Odom put Ashworth into the game for the first time, and the former Lone Peak High star promptly knocked down a 3-pointer, then came up with a steal and pulled up in transition to drop in another trey.
And just like that, the Aggies looked like a different team against the significantly larger Ducks.
“After the first timeout, our guys answered the challenge,” Odom noted. “Steven, obviously, began to make some shots for our team to give us that life that he’s been giving us all year off the bench. And that settled some of the other guys down, too. When he does that, that really helps, and the others feed off that. The defense gets a little bit better. Kind of a natural thing.”
Thanks to Ashworth connecting on his first four 3-point attempts, a flagrant foul call that led to two free throws for Max Shulga and a driving layup by Bairstow, Utah State was able to take it’s biggest lead of the game — nine points — with 4:55 left in the first half.
While the rest of the half didn’t go quite as smoothly, primarily thanks to Harmon who scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half, Utah State still felt optimistic going into halftime with a 37-33 advantage. But the Ducks, led by Young, were far more aggressive going to the basket in the second half, while doing a much better job of getting out to USU’s shooters when on defense.
Like the first half, Oregon opened the second half with a 10-2 run to regain the lead. But unlike the first half, the Ducks were able to continue to add to that lead, and pulled away by as many as 17 points. In the first nine minutes of the second half, the Aggies notched just two field goals while the Ducks, who will play at Texas A&M in the second round of the NIT, were 9 of 19 from the field.
“They were making plays, don’t get me wrong, but we weren’t tight enough against them,” Odom said of his team in the second half. “You’re running a big risk of not being able to stop it again. That’s really what happened. They got really confident. They got really aggressive going to the basket. Young was magnificent in the second half, while Harmon was the key to the first half for them. The others just filled in quite nicely.”
The final minutes of the game were emotional for the Aggies as Odom put Brock Miller, who has battled back problems all season, into the game, and the senior guard responded by immediately knocking down a baseline jumper for likely the final basket of his college career.
Shortly afterwards, Odom embraced Horvath and senior guard RJ Eytle-Rock, who both followed him from UMBC to Utah State last year, as they left the court, followed by Miller and Bean, who have both been at USU for five years.
“I guess this is officially the end,” Horvath said. “It’s hard to say that. It’s been a wild ride for me. I’m just so blessed and thankful that I came her for my final year. My fifth year. It was more than I expected. It was better than I expected.
“I left it all out there today,” Horvath added. “I left it all out there all season, so I don’t really have any regrets. I wish we would’ve won, obviously, but it is what it is. I love these guys. I love these coaches. It was a great time for me.”