Call it chaotic, loud, tempestuous or unforgettable, but the Utah State men’s basketball team jogged off its home court happy to call it a win.
The Aggies survived a rollercoaster of a game and moved to 15-4 overall and 4-2 in the Mountain West Conference as junior guard Max Shulga drained two free throws in the final 10 seconds to secure a 75-71 victory over the UNLV Rebels in front of a deafening crowd at Dee Glen Smith Spectrum.
With 2:31 remaining in the game, the Aggies trailed the Rebels, 69-68, with 2:31 remaining after UNLV guard Jordan McCabe drained a 3-pointer. From the 1:09 mark to the end, the Aggies outscored the visiting team, 7-2. Aggies junior guard Steven Ashworth retook the lead with a 3 near the top of the key, and a crowd of 7,611 fans exploded in cheers.
Ashworth drove below the basket with 23 seconds left and stalled out, calling a timeout with just two seconds on the shot clock after finding no one to pass to. On the inbound play, Ashworth found senior guard Sean Bairstow open at midrange, and Bairstow swished the jumper for a four-point lead.
“We came down and executed well,” Ashworth said. “I got into the lane and looked for an open guy to kick out to but couldn’t find it. Called a quick timeout. Sean (Bairstow) makes a great bucket. Coach (Ryan Odom) has a great play that we executed well. Right from point to point to point, we had option one and it wasn’t there. Option two wasn’t there, so we knew option three was going to be there and Sean hit a big-time shot.”
Despite the win, the Aggies struggled mightily with execution and getting through the UNLV defense. The Rebels collected 14 steals as Utah State turned the ball over a season-high 21 times. UNLV outscored USU from the bench, 38-13, on a night when the Aggies were missing two players, Rylan Jones and Zee Hamoda.
Hamoda was out with an illness and is expected to return on Saturday against San Jose State, Odom said. It was a night when the Aggies had to overcome a team that played most parts of the game better than them.
“They play extremely aggressive on defense,” Odom said. “They were poking balls early. We talked about before the game, it’s hard to prep in practice. You can’t replicate what they do and how they play on defense. (We) showed all the film over and over and over again to get the guys to understand how aggressive they are at just trying to put pressure on you and take your ball … You rebound it, they’re coming after it. They’re just always there coming after you.”
Plenty more things didn’t go according to script for the Aggies. Graduate forward Taylor Funk exploded in the first half for 20 points and led the team in scoring, but he didn’t score a point in the second half. Similarly, senior center Trevin Dorius was the second Aggie in double-figures at halftime with 10 points, 9 of which happened in the first 3:35 of the game. After halftime, he never scored again.
USU also had two wide-open layups by Ashworth and Bairstow miss horribly. UNLV led the Aggies in fast break points, 13-7.
With the wound of a crushing loss at Nevada still fresh, the Aggies came into the game desperate to learn how to navigate stretches of basketball chaos that dominated large portions of the game.
“I think that in previous circumstances, we didn’t navigate it,” Ashworth said. “As recent as last game, we didn’t navigate it the way that we wanted to, so we watched film, and we had the hard talks. It’s never easy to watch something like that. I think by going through it before, we were able to learn for this game.
The Aggies have historically struggled against the Rebels, who lead the all-time series, 34-13, but Utah State’s win was the eighth in the last 10 matchups and the fourth straight, keeping Odom undefeated against them.
Playing in front of their second-straight home crowd of over 7,500 — roughly 700 more than the season average — the Aggies’ storied homecourt advantage drowned out every other noise over the final two minutes of play as virtually every fan, not just the students, was on their feet.
“It’s something super special,” Ashworth said. “Throughout my entire time at the Spectrum, I knew there would always be the Hurd in that corner, and the question was ‘What is the community gonna bring? I think you saw it tonight down the stretch on defense. Cache Valley came in clutch for sure.”
The Aggies remain at home for their next game as they host San Jose State on Saturday at 4 p.m.