LOGAN — Utah State men’s basketball had a golden opportunity to make a critical defensive stop against the San Jose State Spartans down by a point with 2:57 remaining, and the Aggies pulled it off — again, and again, and again.
The Aggies overcame San Jose State nabbing four offensive rebounds and taking five shots on their second-to-last possession with nothing to show for it. Then junior guard Steven Ashworth, the shortest player on the court at the time, finally grabbed the defensive rebound, streaked downcourt and buried a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:44 to go.
Ultimately, Utah State came away with a 75-74 win over the Spartans on Saturday as junior Max Shulga made a tie-breaking free throw with 5.8 seconds remaining, the second game in a row that he’s made critical free throws in the final minute after making two of them against UNLV last Tuesday.
“All of us shoot free throws every day,” Shulga said, “so it’s just a matter of staying composed and don’t get too high when we go on a run or don’t get too low when they go on a run, so it was just staying composed and staying level-headed.”
Ashworth led the team in scoring with 19 points, 16 of which came in the second half. Shulga was consistent through the game and finished with 15 points on 6 of 8 from the field, and senior forward Dan Akin added another 13 with seven rebounds.
Shulga went to the line with the game tied and missed the first shot as a home crowd of 8,895 groaned.
Against the wave of frustration after a game rife with frustrating moments, he calmly drained the second one, and the Aggies rushed back on defense to force a game-ending miss from 3 from SJSU guard Alvaro Cardenas.
“Naturally, you start thinking like, ‘Oh my God, no way I just missed it,’” but you just try to dismiss those thoughts and trust your follow through, your shot and just stay in the moment,” Shulga said.
Most of the game wasn’t favorable for the Aggies, as they trailed for over 31 minutes and by as much as 11 at one point in the first half.
The most haunting part, one that would have reminded fans of the Aggies’ non-conference loss to Weber State, was how the Spartans answered Utah State’s scoring runs with big, momentum-killing shots over and over again.
The Aggies made scoring runs that either got within a possession or retook the lead on four different occasions, all of them answered immediately by go-ahead buckets from San Jose State.
“We had to adjust,” Shulga said. “As the game goes on, we just have to adjust. We knew they were going to be really aggressive on the offensive board and try to be really physical with us.
“We just had to adjust, see how the refs were calling, what were they calling, what were they not calling just as the game went on. I think we did a pretty good job of that in the second half.”
Utah State head coach Ryan Odom’s game plan against the Spartans helped to limit their leading scorer, Omari Moore, who finished with 16 points on 8 of 19 from the field, but the Spartans’ Tibet Gorener unexpectedly went off for 20 points on 7 of 11 shooting despite entering Saturday averaging just 5.6 points per game for the season.
“We understood the shooting ability that this team has,” Odom said. “Moore can make shots. (Cardenas) can make shots. (Gorener) is a shooter. That’s what he is.”
Coming into the last few possessions as the Aggies drew even with the Spartans, the crowd, from parents of youth cheer squads performing at halftime to a standing-room-only student section, and even the entire Sky View High School basketball team, rose to its feet, the same as it was in the last minute against UNLV earlier in the week.
From the crowd’s perspective, seeing the Spartans get five chances at the basket in a single possession was almost more than it could take. From Odom’s, it was just how the game goes.
“That was a huge play,” Odom said. “You can get discouraged when you give up two or three offensive rebounds on one play. I felt like some of those were kind of a bad beat … I can’t say enough about our crowd and the impact that our fans have on the game.
“It’s so loud in there, it’s hard to think at times, and certainly I’m sure it is for the opponent.”