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Taylor Funk and Utah State bounce back and cruise to 83-63 win over Wyoming

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Utah State forward Taylor Funk blows a kiss after making a 3-pointer

Utah State forward Taylor Funk blows a kiss after making a 3-pointer against Wyoming during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in Logan, Utah.

Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP

The Utah State men’s basketball team has made a point of being able to “always answer,” as graduate forward Taylor Funk said.

After a rough loss last weekend against Boise State, the Aggies answered loudly by earning a dominant victory at home over the Wyoming Cowboys, 83-63, late on Tuesday night.

Funk, who had gone through a rough several games shooting-wise, lit up from everywhere on the court as he led all scorers with 22 points on 7-for-13 from the field including 4-for-8 from the 3-point line. Senior forward Dan Akin pulverized the Cowboys in the paint with his 16 points and 15 rebounds, making his last five shots of the game.

“We bounced back pretty well,” Akin said. “We took a pounding a couple days ago against Boise, so (we needed to) come out, make a statement. It’s pretty nice.”

Utah State outdid Wyoming in nearly every statistical category, shooting 50.8% from the field to Wyoming’s 39.1%, outrebounding the Cowboys 43-34, outassisting them 21-7, and outscoring 21-11 on fast breaks.

Utah State coach Ryan Odom said the key to the game for the Aggies was simply “looking in the mirror” after their 23-point loss in Boise.

“One of our core values is humility,” Odom said. “We talked about that and not thinking less of ourselves because we lost that game by such a wide margin, and it just didn’t feel right.”

In the Aggies’ three games this year following a loss, they are 3-0 and win by an average of 19.6 points per game.

Utah State’s adrenaline was visible from the tipoff, with ball movement and speed looking far better than in recent contests.

Funk said the Cowboys played a “weird kind of basketball.” Wyoming, while dealing with injuries to its own lineup, employed a smaller lineup with four guards led by 6-foot-7 guard Hunter Maldonado. The Cowboys’ defensive scheme aimed to limit 3-point shots, which theoretically seemed like a good idea against the Aggies, one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the country.

What that turned into was a 46-34 advantage for USU on points in the paint, including six dunks, nearly all of which were less of the garden variety and more of the “take the rim home with you” variety.

The Aggies “didn’t try to do anything in particular” to create difficulties for Wyoming’s interior defense, Odom said. “We just tried to move it … I think you saw what Dan (Akin) can do with a little bit of room in there. He missed his first few shots, but I thought they were all good looks.”

USU senior guard Sean Bairstow finished with 14 points, capping it off with a one-handed dunk over a defender that sent a jam-packed student section into pandemonium. Junior guard Max Shulga had his 13th game of the season in double-figures with 14 points on 6-10 shooting.

Notably, junior guard Steven Ashworth, who leads the team in scoring, ended with just eight points on 2-for-7 shooting, including 0-for-3 from the arc, yet he led the team in assists with seven and was a high-impact player on the court nonetheless leading all players in plus/minus with a plus-26 rating.

“I don’t even think he scored a basket in the first half, but he played well and certainly helped our team,” Odom said. “Certainly, in the second half, his ‘Energizer bunny’ speed up the court was important for us.”

Being the first home game for Utah State since the start of the spring semester the day before the matchup, students packed the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum to the brim and brought a heavy home-court advantage. When shooting free throws facing the student section, the Cowboys shot an abysmal 33.3% from the stripe.

“It’s great for sure,” Funk said. “This place was jumping tonight and it’s such a home-court advantage. It’s a real thing in college basketball for sure.”